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October 3, 2003

From Tenacious D to schoolhouse rock: Jack Black shines in new film

Give Jack Black the Oscar. There…I said it. And I'm only half-kidding. I've seen no other movie this year that has been so completely dominated by the presence of one actor, and has, in turn, transformed a devilishly funny sideshow into the next breakout comedy star. Jack Black owns School of Rock, seemingly born for the role of Dewey Finn, the wanna-be guitar god so hopelessly devoted to the rawk that he would mold a bunch of elementary schoolers into a band of Goliath-topplers. So, at the very least, hand Black the award for Most Valuable Actor: all that grunt work deserves some kind of prize.

So, let's back up a second from Black walking down the red carpet and focus on why this movie is a class act hidden inside a formulaic Hollywood film. For one, it's directed by sometime-auteur Richard Linklater, he of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Waking Life fame. Here, Linklater does a near 180 from his last movie, Tape, an Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Robert Sean Leonard act-a-thon set entirely in a motel room and filmed digitally. Though I came away thoroughly impressed with Linklater's small-scale experiment, it wasn't all that much fun. School, however, is big, bold, and bright, and features some unexpectedly good comedic performances.

Another reason for the movie's success is screenwriter Mike White, the man responsible for the lauded scripts of films such as Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl. Although there is no reason why a White character should ever be going out with the likes of Sarah Silverman, his role as Dewey Finn's push-over simp of a roommate named Ned Schneebly fits like a glove. Though I cannot know how much of Black's dialogue came from the pen of White and how much was improvised, it is clear that White can be praised for the screenplay as a whole, as each actor has the luxury of biting into juicy one-liners that don't condescend to the audience.

And then there's Black. Many of you have been waiting for a role like this to come along for the furry round man with the crazed eyes, and it seems like Black has too. He stole the show in movies like High Fidelity and Orange County, was invaluable to many episodes of the prematurely-cancelled Mr. Show, and has produced one killer metal album with his buddy Kyle Gass as Tenacious D. Now, finally, Black has his chance at a starring role, and in it he takes the bull firmly by the horns. In this custom-fit character, Black can indulge all his unique comedic talents, as he is more outrageous, more expressive, and just plain better with a zinger than any comedian currently on the screen.

The screenplay is clearly secondary to Black's performance, but it is certainly not inferior to his talents. His Dewey Finn is a pretty sad-sack character, but he is totally unaware of his inability to rock. Dewey is, in fact, utterly convinced of his musical gifts, and is determined to start his own group of ass-kicking musicians who will completely humiliate the band that just dumped him. This opportunity inadvertently arises when Dewey, in need of cash, steals both the identity and the job of his substitute teacher roomie Ned.

Dewey is put in charge of a class of fifth-graders at a prepster elementary school, whom he sees as merely nuisances to be quashed until the three o'clock dismissal. At first his curriculum merely consists of indefinite recess. But when Dewey overhears his precocious charges reaching something close to harmony in their music class, the lightbulb clicks on over his head. What follows is a story that could be called the Good News Griffins, as these previously mild-mannered goodie-goodies learn to stick it to The Man with their rock ‘n' roll.

Dewey, masquerading as Ned, becomes the teacher that every kid deserves, indefatigably enthusiastic and encouraging even if he is teaching his kids the aesthetics of Townshend's windmill and the historical connection between the Buzzcocks and Blondie. The kids are perfectly cast in their roles, and they hang with Black as more than just foils for his histrionics. Dewey even thaws the ass-clenching Principal Mullins, played by Joan Cusack, who pulls out her best performance in years. In the end, the power of the rock wins over everyone.

OK, so maybe Jack Black won't get the Oscar. If Jim Carrey can't even be nominated, then Jack Black has as good a chance as a snowball in hell. Give it to Bill Murray or someone (was Tom Hanks in something this year?) But you can't deny the punch that he provides this film, as one is caught up in Black's balls-to-the-walls energy from the get go. Credit Mike White and Richard

Linklater for producing a movie that features kids, but doesn't take advantage of or exploit their cuteness. And go ahead and call School of Rock one of the best comedies of the year. You can call Jack Black bus driver, and I think you know why.