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School of Rock

[Our Sunday Visitor, October 26, 2003]

School of Rock

Take a good look at those rolling eyebrows’you’re going to be seeing them for a long time. In ‘School of Rock’ Jack Black inhabits his character, Dewey Finn, with such appealing manic energy that there’s no question a comic star is born.

What makes Black such a winner’ Probably his startling lack of self-consciousness. A short, heavy guy, he throws himself around the set like Donald O’ Connor singing ‘Make ‘Em Laugh.’ In ‘School of Rock”s opening scene, he is a spotlight-grabbing member of a rock band. Beside himself with fervor, he rips off his shirt, revealing a figure like an unbaked loaf of bread. He then hurls himself into the sparse audience, which parts like the Red Sea at the sight of an airborne Namu. Black crashes facedown to the floor, which dissolves to him facedown, hungover, on his bed the next morning.

Director Richard Linklater keeps things rolling from there so well that, as we drove home after a couple of hours of continual laughing, my companion said, ‘My face hurts.’ You would not necessarily have had such high expectations walking in. The plot sounds iffy: Dewey Finn, rockstar wannabe, can’t make the rent, so he impersonates his upstanding roommate Ned Schneebly (Mike White, also the film’s screenwriter) and takes on a substitute teaching job. Initially bored and cranky, Finn realizes that his students have some musical talent, and molds them into a rock band that will compete for the big prize in a Battle of the Bands.

Now that I put it into words, the story couldn’t sound much worse. What saves it is its heroic resistance to sentiment. Black can do this when many another gifted comedian couldn’t, because he is so childlike, physically unrestrained, undeservedly self-confident, optimistic, determined, an overgrown boy in Underoos. He barrels through the film without gaining much insight, which is what saves it. Everybody Learns a Little Lesson About (fill in blank) lames the last twenty minutes of many a comedy. Other gifted physical comedians couldn’t have pulled this off: Steve Martin would have been too tense, Jim Carrey too bitter, Robin Williams too nauseating, all of them too self-conscious. Such carelessness is a gift.

Despite the rockin’ theme, there is little to worry parents, no bad language or sexual situations, and Finn makes it clear to his charges that rock is not about ‘getting wasted’ but has a higher, if nebulous goal: ‘sticking it to the man.’ It dawns on Finn that as their teacher he *is* the man, so he urges the kids to insult him, which inspires gems of revolutionary ardor like ‘You’re fat and you’ve got body odor.’ No nudity, apart from Black’s shirtlessness at one point, and appearing in shorts at another, which is about all the territory I care to see. If further revelations are planned, I hope they will notify me so I can leave the theater first.

The cast includes major parts for a dozen children, some of which must also be convincing musical performers, and among that crew acting quality is uneven. The adult cast more than makes up for it, with roommate Mike White, and the admirable Joan Cusack as the school’s principal, holding their own against Hurricane Jack. Great writing and performances clothe the bones of an iffy story, and it is only toward the end that these threaten to re-emerge, as Little Lessons begin to clear their throats. Be sure to stay through the credits for the antidote.


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