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August 6, 2003

Hot for Teacher

Daniel Radosh

I just caught a screening of The School of Rock, the new comedy (due October) starring Jack Black, written by Mike White, and directed by Richard Linklater. And since I know you want to know what that combination cooked up, here's my 5-minute review. Post a link on all your favorite Jack Black fan boards.

Anyone who loves Tenacious D or who caught Jack Black's scene stealing in High Fidelity and Jesus' Son — and then suffered through Shallow Hal, Saving Silverman, or the trailer for Envy— has been waiting a long time for someone to give him his own movie that doesn't suck. The School of Rock is that movie.

JB fans won't be disappointed, and audiences discovering him for the first time (this movie is gonna be aimed wide), will be hooked by the first scene, which starts with a classic JB rock god guitar solo and ends with a hilarious and perfectly-timed bit of slapstick. What's not to love?

And yet...

School of Rock is one seriously square entertainment product. Mike White's trademarked idiosyncrasies are nowhere to be found in the script. The dialogue is funny enough (much of it feels ad-libbed) but the plot is the most play-it-safe by-the-numbers piece of hackwork I've seen in ages. You can practically figure it out from the title, but very quickly: JB gets kicked out of his loser rock band and his substitute-teacher roommate (White) and his roomie's girlfriend (the great Sarah Silverman, utterly wasted in a one-note role) threaten to kick him out of the apartment if he can't pay the rent. So when JB takes a call for his roomie about a teaching job, he decides to pretend to be him and ends up faking his way through a job at, wait for it, a snobby prep school, where, wait for it, he transforms the stiff kids into a rockin' band while they, still waiting?, teach him what's really important in life.

I wish I was kidding.

Now if you're going to have a plot like this, the only way to direct it is crisp and businesslike, so the movie doesn't get in the way of the jokes. In other words, you don't hire Richard Linklater, whose familiar shabby chic style fights against the story, making it seem even creakier than it needs to, especially in the most predictable first act, which feels way too long. Linklater's style is good when he's just letting JB do his JB thing, but wrong everywhere else.

Even given the basic plot outlines, School of Rock could have been much, much better than it is. The kids are completely two-dimensional. There's a shy one, a nerdy one, a rebel, a prim and proper brownnoser. You see more realistic 10-year-olds in the average breakfast cereal commercial. Plus, we're supposed to believe that there are any kids today who have basically never heard of rock and roll and have no interest it (or in, say, hip-hop, which, for the purposes of this movie, does not exist). The funniest concept in the movie (as opposed to the shtick, which is all pretty funny) is probably unintentional: JB thinks he's showing the kids how to be cool, but his classic rock taste is embarrassingly out of date. And there's no reason for it. Giving the kids a spark of genuine tween angst -- something that would make them WANT to unleash the rock -- would have simply made this a better movie. (As would an R rating. JB's songs just aren't as funny without all the bad language.)

There's also a subplot involving the school principal that's useless, except for the fact that she's played by Joan Cusack, who is, as always, amazing.

I enjoyed School of Rock, but I wish it had been more than just enjoyable. No doubt Linklater is shooting for his first mainstream hit. He'll probably get it, but it's too bad he didn't want to make a Linklater film instead. Imagine setting JB's wild man loose among the self-conscious pontificators of Waking Life or Slackers. Now that's a set up for a great film.

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