Jack Black is a blast as he steps to the head of the class in `School'
I hereby propose an amendment to the California state constitution by which independent art-house directors are forced to make Hollywood family films. In this manner, we may be assured of more movies like Robert Rodriguez's "Spy Kids" and, if we're lucky, Richard Linklater's utterly adorable "The School of Rock."
"School" could best be described as "The Bad News Bears" with heavy-metal guitar moves instead of home runs, but that it touches all the predictable bases somehow becomes part of its charm. The film also serves as the manic star vehicle Jack Black has been waiting for and may never have again: as unwatchable as he was in "Shallow Hal," that's how engaging he is here.
Imagine that the imperiously demented record-store employee Black played in "High Fidelity" has been put in charge of the fifth grade classroom at a tony private school. Actually, Dewey Finn isn't a regular substitute teacher -- he's a substitute substitute who poses as his own earnest roommate, Ned (screenwriter Mike White), in hopes that he can come up with the rent money to avoid eviction by Ned's termagant girlfriend (comedian Sarah Silverman, her jaw set on stun).
Dewey is a hopelessly arrested 30-something who has never not slept on a futon; his passion for the classic metal of the pre-MTV era is outstripped only by his inability to play it without looking like an idiot. "I serve society by rocking," enthuses Dewey, which doesn't stop his blow-dried bandmates from voting him out of the group.
The fifth grade homeroom at Horace Green Prep is another story: polite overachievers to a boy and girl, they've never seen anyone like him. And Dewey does have things to teach. "Here's the deal," he says on his first day, "I'm hung over. Does anyone know what that means?" "It means you're drunk," answers one of the students. "No," Dewey responds with infinite patience, "it means I was drunk yesterday."
"School" takes off when Dewey witnesses his students' prowess in music class and realizes they could be the outfit to help him win a local "Battle of the Bands" contest that comes with a $20,000 purse. Immediately, everyone in class is assigned positions: Zack (Joey Gaydos Jr.) takes lead guitar after he proves he can mimic the opening chords of "Smoke on the Water," class bad-boy Freddy (Kevin Clark) gets the drum kit and a handful of Keith Moon videos, studious Lawrence (Robert Tsai) is instructed on keyboard moves, shy Katie (Rebecca Brown) makes a perfect stonefaced bass player. Goody-two-shoes class leader Summer (Miranda Cosgrove)? The manager, naturally.
There are backup singers and lighting technicians, security men and roadies, clothes designers and groupies. "Can we tell our parents?" asks a student. "No!" roars Dewey.
The genius of the movie is that every kid fantasizes about being in a rock band and so did (and sometimes still do) their parents; "The School of Rock" gently flatters the notion of rebellions future and past and, in so doing, becomes a genuine bonding experience (some mild salty language and harmless drug references keep it out of the reach of the youngest audiences). Director Linklater is one of the most humanely funny filmmakers we have, and his earlier work -- "Slacker," "Before Sunrise," the masterful "Dazed and Confused" -- are remarkable for lacking in villains. Nor are there cardboard bad guys in this, his most commercial movie yet. For instance: Most directors would make the school's uptight headmistress an authority figure to be mocked and overcome in the final reel. And it's true that, under Dewey's tutelage, the students come to see Miss Mullins (Joan Cusack) as the embodiment of "the Man." ("Why, thank you," she says sweetly when someone calls her just that.) But Linklater, White, and Cusack conspire to turn the character into an achingly sympathetic comic creation who looks back with nostalgia at a time when she "used to be fun," and who only needs to hear Stevie Nicks's "Edge of Seventeen" on the jukebox to be set free.
Don't go to "School" expecting narrative surprises, or believability. It enlivens rather than reinvents the timeworn formula, and a reliance on ethnic and cultural stereotypes may annoy nitpickers. Nor is it inspirational treacle -- Black is too unrestrained to be anybody's Mr. Chips.
If anything, "School" is an Eddie Murphy kiddie-flick with a real and welcome bite. It also has a deep-dish appreciation for rock lore that should delight any dad who has ever tried to get his children to listen to "Who's Next" rather than the "Lizzie McGuire" soundtrack. Not that this reviewer would know anything about that.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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