Comfortable and Furious

The School of Rock (2003)

I hate to be the wet blanket, the contrarian who refuses to play along, but I cannot add to the general gush of good feeling with my own glowing endorsement of Richard Linklater’s The School of Rock. There is no denying Jack Black’s presence and charisma (and immense energy), but merely because his character is a true believer does not mean that he inhabits a worthwhile film. To be blunt, there is nothing original about this film — from the predictable story arc, to the one-dimensional characters lifted from a thousand other screenplays, to the dubious message of having fun instead of learning. From Dead Poets Society to Sister Act to the current The Fighting Temptations, this is nothing more than the umpteenth version of the loveable loser who transforms a bunch of rag-tag young people into a group of talented (in this case) musicians.

But it could just as easily be actors, or singers, or poets, or whatever. The message is obvious and the film seems quite content to reinforce clichés that even first-time screenwriters try to avoid. Yes, Black is appealing and manic, but The School of Rock is the sort of film that would be instantly forgotten if it weren’t for the fact that its lead actor is the “next big thing.” From magazine covers to the host gig on Saturday Night Live, Black currently has the nation’s attention and I have no doubt this is why people flocked to the theaters on opening weekend. Why the critics have been bowled over is beyond me, although I have the sneaking suspicion that they are elevating mediocre material only after comparing it to week after week of true garbage.

Jack Black stars as Dewey Finn, a boorish lug of a man who sleeps all day, never seems to bathe, is incapable of holding a job, and yet, is fully devoted to a life of rock and roll. Not just in rock and roll (although that is the only job he could ever have), but literally bathed in its essence of rebellion and attitude. He lives to fight “the man” and is the sort of person who would bend your ear for hours about “selling out,” yet has no problem asking others to pay his bills. He lives with his old rock buddy Ned Schneebly (screenwriter Mike White) and Ned’s girlfriend Patty (Sarah Silverman), who is portrayed as a humorless, castrating Zionist. Ned has sold his soul to success and full employment, and currently spends his days as a substitute teacher, hoping one day to get certified and have a class of his own. Finally, Dewey is told to either pay his share of the rent or leave the house. Hoping to use the cash from a Battle of the Bands contest, Dewey is devastated when he is fired from his band, thereby leaving him without a job and an identity. Needless to say, a plot contrivance comes along to save the day.

One morning, Dewey answers a call intended for Ned from the principal of Horace Green Elementary, an upper crust private academy for gifted students. Hearing about a two-week assignment as a substitute, Dewey pretends to be Ned and promises to be there that day. Let us pause right there and I will ask you, dear readers, what we can expect to happen next. First, will Dewey (as Ned) initially approach this job as just another way to make money, only to bond with the kids and become their savior? Second, will Dewey use the philosophy of rock to reach overly studious young people and bring them a sense of fun and excitement for the first time in their lives?

Third, will Dewey meet an uptight principal (Joan Cusack) who is no-nonsense and obsessed with the rules, only to bring out her playful side with the power of music? Next, will the scheme threaten to come apart after Ned’s ball-breaking girlfriend calls both the cops and the principal, thereby ruining the opportunity for the newly inspired kids to play their music at the aforementioned Battle of the Bands? Finally, will the kids break the rules anyway, leave school without permission, pick up a despondent Dewey, drive to the contest, rock the house, and bring smiles to the faces of the initially outraged parents who followed the principal to the auditorium?

Will the shy kid find his groove and be the most gifted of them all? Will the fat girl, ashamed of her weight, belt out a tune that would bring a tear to the eye to the Queen of Soul herself? Will the pussy Ned blow off his girlfriend and be the one cheering the loudest at the final concert? Will Dewey realize a dream and open his own school of music at the end? Why am I asking these questions? If you have been paying attention to movies for the past fifty years, you already know the answers. I’m guessing you could have written the screenplay yourself.

And hey, I was a teenage rocker myself and I can sympathize with anyone who wants to believe music can change the world, but there is something inherently vile about the idea that the only acceptable form of education is that which is packed with wall-to-wall excitement. When Dewey utters the line, “Put down that book, it’s time to rock,” I was not amused. When I first witnessed this classroom of polite, intelligent, articulate youngsters I was beaming with joy, rather than seeing them as needing personality transformations. Overachieving kids can be obnoxious in an Alex P. Keaton sort of way, but I am always disgusted by films (see Daddy Day Care) that portray intellectuals as stuffy and uncool and “having fun” touted as the prime virtue of youth.

Music can have a transformative effect and is important, but Mozart and Bach are not reserved for nerds and grade-obsessed monsters alone. Yes, it is sad that kids are not as aware of the gods of rock as they are the decidedly less talented (and socially irrelevant) hip-hop hacks of the present, but when we start believing that all of life should resemble a rock concert rather than remaining but one small part, we are no better than the foolish idealists who hold on to Woodstock as the defining moment of our nation’s past and somehow seem to think that a few days of nakedness, drug use, and hedonistic excess are recipes for a successful society. Despite Dewey’s appearance as a rebel and the last, best hope for kids lost in a sea of ambition and materialism, he is just as likely to humiliate the kid who prefers literature to football as the mindless jocks and cheerleaders whom Dewey would like us to believe he is so steadfastly against.

Dubious message aside, there is nothing to recommend this film outside of a few choice metal chestnuts on the soundtrack and a Jack Black performance that, while not really acting, is genuinely enchanting. Nothing that we see is necessarily boring, but I refuse to accept “not boring” as enough to warm my cinematic heart. Each and every turn is as the rules of Hollywood dictate, and all of the characters act according to the mandates of the script. There are no people, as there are no real choices; only mechanization and “acceptable” closure. The good guy’s triumph, the bad guys are transformed (or presumably dumped, as in the case of Patty), and everyone is allowed to live out their dreams. More than hippy idealism, this is madness incarnate. And I’m not buying it.

Special Ruthless Ratings:

  • Number of films that have ended with a “Battle of the…” contest: 1336
  • Number of other film critics who seemed to forget this fact while touting this film’s virtues: 176
  • Number of stores currently open for business in the ghetto mall that houses my neighborhood theater: 2
  • Number of stores that were open a month ago before they were bulldozed away: 7
  • Number of characters that Jack Black has played so far in his career: 30+
  • Number of those characters who were anyone other than “Jack Black”: 0