Over the years of movie after movie, Hollywood has searched frantically for the Holy Grail of cinema, known to the general population as the family film. Everyone who sees this gem of a movie finds something in it for himself and goes home happy, while the studios rake in the dough. But the right combination of elements on this road to riches is well-hidden, making a true family film very hard to come by.
This year has been exceptional because three films have made it into this coveted category. After “Finding Nemo” and “Freaky Friday,” we find ourselves with “School of Rock,” by far the best film of the three. Here, director Richard Linklater, known for his edgy and surreal “Waking Life,” achieves something grand with his rocking renovation of the family film — he gives it cojones.
“You could be the sorriest sad sack in the world, but if you’re in a band, you’re the cat’s meow,” slacker/rocker Dewey Finn (Jack Black) proclaims in defense of his career. If this were one of those dime-a-dozen imitation family films, he would learn something by the end that would change this philosophy, but thankfully this is not that type of movie. “School of Rock” tells the story of Dewey’s rise in the ranks of substitute teacherdom using the classic structure developed by “Sister Act.” The short of it is, Dewey needs to pay his best friend Neb Schneebly (Mike White, who also wrote the script) rent for taking up half his apartment. Ned, who used to be in a band, is now a substitute teacher and wants Dewey to follow suit and find a job. “The best prep school in the state” calls to hire Ned, and Dewey borrows a bit of “Mrs. Doubtfire” magic to fake his way into the position.
At first, Dewey ignores the uptight kids and assigns them eternal recess, which leaves them in confusion. But he soon hatches a scheme to take them to the state battle of the bands and, well, the rest is predictable. But within this familiar setting, the superb acting and White’s mature, thought-provoking script invade Whoopi’s old stomping grounds, leaving Black the king of the genre.
At one standout point, Black teaches his students about rock ‘n’ roll’s battle against authority. Taking his lesson from protesters of yore, he conjures up a personification of authority called “The Man” and implicates parents, teachers and other students as guilty of representing this evil conservative force. He then explains rock’s role in all this, which is, as one student puts it, “sticking it to The Man.” However, “The Man” at this particular school happens to be a woman — specifically, a very uptight principal.
Through Principal Mullins, played superbly by Joan Cusack, “School of Rock” carefully sidesteps the traps of archetypes. Although she begins the film as the two-dimensional Roald Dahl-ish principal who makes little girls cry with fright, she very quickly opens up to Black. In a jaw-dropping monologue, a slightly drunk Cusack reveals the terror of running a private school. “I used to be funny,” she says, her lips quivering as if her entire past vitality were trapped inside them. It turns out that the parents, coupled with the legal system, are to blame for the root of her fear — she is sued for the smallest problem. Praise the Lord, a poignantly true statement about a social problem coming from the mouth of the (supposed) bad guy! The movie is filled with these little moments. Even Black gets a short monologue about being fat that manages to trump his stellar guitar solos.
And it is Black who leads this movie in the truest sense. The sincerity and respect he exudes when talking to the kids is a welcome relief from the pedantic conversations found in recent children’s movies like “Spy Kids.” He avoids mushiness and firmly cements his warm-hearted mania without ever going too far in the other direction and becoming annoying. The kids themselves also challenge the cotton candy classroom of past movies. In a very progressive move, the 10-year-old costume designer for the band (and an early bloomer) tells Black his favorite singer is Liza Minnelli. At another point, a bossy little girl threatens to tell her father that Dewey is teaching rock ‘n’ roll unless she gets what she wants; the surprise here is that the blackmail works, and without repercussions. Black even succeeds in nicknaming a little girl “Brace-face.” White gets away with all of these things because he keeps the Grail — good-natured, fun inclusiveness — in sight.
From the witty opening sequence to the musical closing credits, “School of Rock” hits a home run. Calling this the funniest film of the season would be an understatement. And the film even contains something more than comedy: it teaches its own philosophy about what should constitute a fun elementary school education. Dewey himself encapsulates the appeal of the film when he yells, “I’m out there on the front lines liberating people with my music!” Just replace the word “music” with “movie,” and you’ll catch Linklater’s tune.
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