School of Rock (review)

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The Jack Black Experience

I mostly can’t stand Jack Black. Wait, strike that — I mostly can’t stand the new Jack Black, the Hollywood Jack Black, the “Look, Ma, I’m a movie star!” Jack Black. He used to have a sort of scary-geek intensity, like as the obsessed fan in Bob Roberts and the morality-challenged computer nerd in Enemy of the State — studio films, sure, but in supporting roles he had a lot more latitude: to be weird, to be prickly, to be unlikable.

So it’s highly ironic that the film in which Black chucks everything that was interesting about him and sells out is itself an all-around sellout, directed by indie eccentric Richard Linklater — whose previous films were such low-budget wonders as Dazed and Confused or oddities like Waking Life — and written by Mike White, who wrote for the TV show Freaks and Geeks (which was so un-sold-out that its realism was downright depressing) and scripted the strange and wonderful Chuck and Buck. Hell, maybe it’s not ironic — maybe it was deliberate. Maybe the guys got together and decided, If we’re gonna sell out, we can at least do it with a movie that pretends it’s all about rebellion and freedom and self-expression and rock ‘n’ roll.

Cuz it ain’t about any of those things, except in the phoniest, most crass way. School of Rock is about as rebellious and free and rockin’ as a Clear Channel radio station, packaging payola-ed “cool” for a mass audience and dishing out focus-grouped, MBA-approved “hip,” all brought to you by a corporation that doesn’t give a shit about your karma or your soul or your beat or anything else but making a buck. Here’s something genuinely ironic: School of Rock tries to invoke itself some of that Rolling Stone magic with its imitative logo, but have you seen Rolling Stone lately? Is anyone still reading Rolling Stone now that it does nothing but toss out sound-bitten CD reviews and shill the latest movies and make cover girls out of manufactured babes like Britney Spears and the Olsen twins? Does anyone seriously think that Rolling Stone still rocks? Hell, maybe this bit of cross-corporate synergy is intentional, too, a way to warn away the faithful: If you still like Rolling Stone — *snicker* — then you’ll love School of Rock.

Black, as you likely already know, is a rock slob who swindles his way into a substitute teaching gig at an exclusive private school when he can’t make the rent, and decides to ignore the curriculum and teach the kids the only thing he knows: rock music. It’s completely preposterous, of course: that the headmistress of the school (Joan Cusack: It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Toy Story 2, who is an absolute hoot) would be taken in by his very bad schoolteacher act, that no one would hear the amplified, electrified instruments blaring from his classroom (stuffing crap around the cracks of the door does not “soundproof” the room), that no one would notice that none of his students have done a lick of actual schoolwork. But Black’s (Ice Age, Shallow Hal) Dewey Finn is determined to use these kids as his ticket to a battle-of-the-bands contest, so whipped into rockin’ shape they will be. Everyone will triumph in the end: the wound-tight kids will be unwound, the wound-tighter headmistress will be won over, Dewey, who’s actually a terrible musician, will find his true calling, and the soundtrack will be on sale in the lobby for $14.98.

And honestly, the preposterousness and the predictability of it all wouldn’t matter if it worked on an emotional level. I like the idea of shaking up these kids today, who’re turning into a rigid little army of automatons overloaded with homework in kindergarten and smothered into submission with Ritalin, of injecting them with some of Generation X’s cheerful cynicism and devil-may-careness. These kids need to rock. But except for a very few moments in which the kids express genuine anger at their lives, the movie is utterly passionless. Standing in for passion are Black’s class-clownish antics, the kind that grab desperately for attention with obvious wisecracks and physicalities — Hey everybody, look at the half-naked chubby guy! — guaranteed to get an easy laugh. Though he played a virtually identical character in High Fidelity, there his music obsessive was, well, of the scary-geek variety, with an intensity that was a little frightening but entirely believable; here, his devotion to rock comes off more as a scam, a way to avoid reality instead of a way to create the alternative reality he’d rather live in.

Perhaps the most damning thing about School of Rock is that there’s nothing dangerous about it. Isn’t rock supposed to be at least a little dangerous? You could take your mother to this movie, and at the end she’d say, “Wasn’t that nice, dear?” Rock ain’t supposed to be nice.

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