Full Metal Jack

Black Is Front And Center In The Noisy 'School Of Rock.' Too Bad He Doesn't Share The Stage.

October 03, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Jack Black essentially gets to play himself in School of Rock, and the results are pretty funny. To a point.

As an out-of-work, cash-strapped rocker who cons his way into a substitute teaching job at a hoity- toity private school, then tries turning a bunch of stuffed-short kids into a rock band, Black gets to display the skills and attitude he's honed as frontman for his own band, Tenacious D (as well as extrapolate on the character he introduced in Stephen Frears' High Fidelity). A natural at playing wild and crazy, Black couldn't have asked for a role better suited to his talents. Safe to say, he makes the most of it; there are moments when he's simply hilarious, especially when he urges the kids to get in touch with their own wild sides.

But there are also moments when Black is simply wearying, when his act appears more desperation than inspiration. His one-note performance (in a role, admittedly, that only requires one note) is insufficient to carry an entire film. By the middle of the movie, I found myself anxious for Black to get off the screen, if only to give the kids more screen time and my patience a rest.

Dewey Finn (Black) is one of those would-be rock stars who have the attitude of rock down, but not the logistics; to him, playing a guitar in front of crowds of adoring fans is all about pumping up his own ego; he never gets the idea of a rock band, the notion that he's just part of a greater whole. To him, rocking is all about extended guitar solos and on-stage histrionics.

Little wonder he's a joke on the local band scene (self-indulgent rock like that had its heyday in the late '70s and early '80s), or that local rock fans greet his performances with a collective yawn, going so far as to stand aside when he throws himself into the audience, allowing him to land with a thud on the concert-hall floor.

Of course, Dewey understands none of this. In his mind, he's a certified rock rebel, and that's all that matters. Things get a little complicated, though, when he gets fired from his band and is about to get kicked out of his best friend's apartment for failing to pay his share of the rent. Desperate not to end up on the street or have to sell some of his possessions ("Would you make Picasso sell his guitar?" he screams at his friend), Dewey does something unusual for him - he seizes an opportunity.

Borrowing his buddy's name and profession, Dewey gets a job substitute-teaching at Horace Green Elementary School. Showing up on the first day with a hangover, he rallies just long enough to bluff his way past the school's officious principal (Joan Cusack), then orders his new charges to spend the rest of the day at recess.

Dewey's epiphany, such as it is, comes when he hears his pupils performing in band class. In a rare moment of cranial activity, the gears turn inside Dewey's head and he hatches a plan: teach these kids to rock, make himself frontman for their band, and maybe all his problems will be solved.

We're supposed to believe that Dewey thinks the kids' problems also will be solved - they lead uniformly joyless lives, as the progeny of overachieving parents who've forgotten what it's like to have fun - but Black is weakest when he tries to portray sincerity. His Dewey is simply too shallow to think of anything outside his own restricted sphere of influence.

But the movie really comes alive when the kids are on-screen; true, there's nothing revolutionary in the notion that watching kids act like adults - even stunted slacker adults - is inherently funny. And to a kid, these young actors underplay their scenes, displaying an honest, deadpan wit that is consistently endearing, not to mention laugh-inducing (director Richard Linklater, an indie-film staple, does great work with his young charges).

Screenwriter Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl), who also plays Dewey's friend and soon-to-be-ex-roommate, milks a lot of laughs from the situation, but also makes a serious miscalculation. Yes, he gets the spirit of rock 'n' roll right - it's all about puttin' it to The Man, Dewey tells the kids - but then uses the heavy-metal, big-stadium rock of bands like Rush, Yes and AC/DC to illustrate his point. But has there ever been a style of rock music less concerned with rebellion and more infatuated with simply making noise? Bands from the Beatles to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to the Clash to Nirvana have been about challenging authority and rebelling against whatever's handy; the music Dewey espouses is all about showing off and playing real loud.

School of Rock has a great payoff as Dewey's kids are finally given their chance to shine. And there's plenty of energy to admire in Black's performance. But for a movie that's supposed to be about the redemptive power of rock 'n' roll, there's little to get thrilled about. Like the particular brand of music Dewey espouses, this is a movie more concerned with exploiting rock than understanding it.

School of Rock

Starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack

Directed by Richard Linklater

Rated PG-13 (Some rude humor and drug references)

Released by Paramount Pictures

Time 108 minutes

Sun Score **1/2

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