The overwhelming majority of films based on comic books strain to imitate their sources' flashy graphic elements, usually resulting in a busy mishmash of garish colors, swirling camera movements, grotesque characterization, and excessive special effects. Granted, Daniel Clowes' celebrated graphic novel Ghost World isn't that kind of comic. But director Terry Zwigoff's inspired and achingly funny adaptation aims for something considerably trickier: matching the panel-by-panel rhythms of a universe that's built on the patient accumulation of self-contained, vividly rendered episodes. Like few films since Zwigoff's superb 1995 documentary Crumb, Ghost World sees an underlying poignancy in the lives of outcasts who combat their misery through withering sarcasm and creative misanthropy. Past irony and world-weary beyond their 17 years, Thora Birch and Scarlett Johannson have trouble finding their place among the block apartments, decrepit strip malls, and homogenized neighborhoods of contemporary Los Angeles. They have vague plans to move into an apartment together, but in the meantime, they amble about the city and size up the horrible banalities around them. (An early exchange in which they wonder if the band playing at a high-school dance is so bad it's good, or "so bad it's past good and back to bad again" sums up their disaffection perfectly.) One day, Birch and Johannson alleviate their boredom by arranging a phony date with the author of a personal ad, a middle-aged record collector played by Steve Buscemi. The prank just compounds their depression, but Birch takes an interest in Buscemi—he's not a fashionable loser, but a genuine loser—which causes a subtle rift in her friendship with Johannson, who appears more willing to conform to real-world expectations. Ghost World brims with memorable characters on the periphery: a remedial art teacher (Illeana Douglas) whose touchy-feely, issue-oriented aesthetic is defined by a hilarious experimental video packed with doll parts and crosses; a shy convenience-store clerk (Brad Renfro) the girls love to harass; and Birch's father (Bob Balaban), an ineffectual stiff who operates on a different wavelength than his daughter. If the players outside the film's inner circle come across as two-dimensional caricatures, it's only because Zwigoff and Clowes (who co-wrote the script) are so keyed into their heroes' caustic worldview that they can also recognize its limitations. Most of Ghost World is funny, but the laughs are inextricably tied to the painful alienation and self-loathing that comes with living on society's fringes. In her quest for authenticity, Birch is drawn to Buscemi, but Zwigoff and Clowes are wise enough to know that even something genuine can be a cold comfort.
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