Like other critics, I have earlier compared the work of Jack Black in such pictures as Jesus' Son, High Fidelity and Orange County to that of the late John Belushi. Like Belushi, Black is thick bodied, stubby and given to manic comedic roles with an edge of menace. They also have in common a seemingly unexpected musical talent. With Dan Aykroyd, Belushi created the Blues Brothers for Saturday Night Live and rode the act to big movie box office. Black has his own band, Tenacious D., which is one part parody and one part mad-dog rock. Let's hope that Black controls himself and lasts longer than his doppelganger. Not long before he died, Belushi showed -- in of all things a romantic comedy called Continental Divide -- that he had the acting chops to transcend the schtick that made him famous. Black's current vehicle suggests a comparable range. Certainly, School of Rock provides Black the opportunity to exploit all his talents.
Written by Mike White and directed by Richard Linklater (Waking Life), School of Rock is the story of Dewey Finn (Black), an obsessive rock 'n' roller whose wild performances, selfish, unscripted solos and generally obnoxious behavior make him the kind of man no one will catch when he dives into the mosh pit. Even his bandmates can't stand him, and eventually they kick him out of the group he helped form. Financially, this loss of employment isn't such a big deal. Dewey's gigs barely paid him enough to keep him in beer and buy him a spot on the living-room floor in a friend's apartment. But once he's lost his membership in his band, he has no income at all, and that's when his life takes an unexpected turn.
Dewey has long lived with a buddy named Ned Schneebly (writer White) who used to be in Dewey's band. But romance and responsibility have crowded into Ned's life. The no-nonsense girlfriend Patty (Sarah Silverman) has convinced Ned to give up his dubious musical aspirations and begin a career in teaching by working as a substitute. Moreover, Patty thinks Dewey is a cockroach. She could barely tolerate her boyfriend's pal when Dewey could manage at least token rent. Now she has the moral purchase to kick Dewey out of Ned's life entirely. In response, utterly desperate, Dewey fields one of Ned's substitute calls and shortly finds himself teaching at an elite private school.
Here the movie slides into farce, often hysterically. Dewey couldn't teach an earthworm to slime. An unabashed narcissist, Dewey doesn't care one whit about his teaching responsibilities. His pupils are a repressed, overachieving lot, and Dewey has nothing to offer them. So he tries to get them to take day-long recess and protect him from the withering inspection of priggish principal Rosalie Mullins (Joan Cusack). But they'll have none of it, of course, since they're all determined to accumulate the credentials for Harvard. Then the mad light of inspiration shines into Dewey's fevered mind. He'll help them with their extracurricular vitae: He'll turn the class into a rock 'n' roll band, enter them into a local music competition and rock the house down. This is all preposterous, but that doesn't mean it's not winning.
School of Rock is the kind of picture that shows how old cinematic formulas can still entertain if they are applied by talented people. We've seen this kind of thing, for instance, in The Bad News Bears and other such films where a curmudgeonly adult gets involved with a bunch of misfit kids, helps them discover themselves and finds redemption for himself in the process. This isn't the kind of material one would expect to see from White, who wrote the creepy Chuck and Buck and the disturbing The Good Girl, or from Linklater, whose breakthrough direction came with Slacker and whose best film is Dazed and Confused. But the filmmakers aren't really slumming here; they endeavor successfully to give their characters far more definition than Hollywood commonly bothers.
The twist is that the students in School of Rock aren't outcasts or rebels who have to be brought into the mainstream by learning the concept of "team." Rather, these kids are uptight grinds who have to learn to let it all hang out. There's some really standout work on the part of the young cast. In particular, Miranda Cosgrove, who plays the class busybody Summer Hathaway, has the kind of presence that recalls a younger Christina Ricci. We won't be at all surprised to see her again. The show ultimately belongs to Black, of course, and he attacks his role as Dewey with a becoming fierceness. Critically, like Hugh Grant in About a Boy, he plays it straight. The Saturday Night Live gang have often done their comedy with a wink, a distancing irony that clues us that they know how silly things are. Black's earnest nuttiness is a superior strategy. By the end we actually care about Dewey, and what a triumph that is.
- Substitute teacher Dewey Finn (Jack Black, right) tries to talk his way out of a jam with principal Rosalie Mullins (Joan Cusack) in Richard Linklater's latest, School of Rock.