Hurling himself into the role of pop pedagogue Dewey Finn, Jack Black is consistently hilarious—and not just in his dreams of moshpit glory. School of Rock, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens here next week, is the most commercial movie directed by the versatile Richard Linklater; written by Mike White (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl), it’s also Linklater’s funniest.
This has been an outstanding month for male comic performances—Bill Murray, of course, but also Nicolas Cage’s manic turn in the otherwise bogus Matchstick Men, and Bruce Campbell’s sustained impression of a geriatric Elvis in the midnight wannabe Bubba Ho-Tep (reviewed elsewhere this issue). Black, a beady-eyed performer not known for his subtlety, exceeds even Cage in physical comedy, at times exhibiting a chubby grace that can suggest Zero Mostel’s. Loud and obnoxious, a fount of inane jive, absurd bluster, and banshee shrieks, his Dewey lords over the set—delivering White’s rock clichés with lunatic conviction. White himself appears as Dewey’s sometime foil, his wimped-out roomie Ned Schneebly, a substitute teacher with an extremely judgmental girlfriend, Patty (Sarah Silverman).
“I serve society by rocking,” feckless Dewey stoutly maintains in the face of Ned and Patty’s accusations of deadbeatdom. Threatened with eviction and fired from the heavy metalloid band he founded, Dewey intercepts a phone call for Ned; passing himself off as a sub, he tries to make the rent money by teaching fifth grade in an exclusive private school. One thing leads to another, and after exhausting the option of the all-day recess, Dewey orchestrates a secret “class project” to mold his po-faced, 10-year-old charges into his replacement rock band. Thus, the culture of rock ‘n’ roll takes hold.
The movie’s basic joke is that, no less than the beloved teacher of Dead Poets Society, Dewey is initiating his students into the mysteries of literary appreciation. As noted by Robert Pattison some years ago, rock ideology vulgarizes a number of 19th-century romantic conventions, including the glorification of youth and youthful energy, as well as a distaste for formal education. Perpetual motion machine and messianic master of the hot-air guitar, Dewey embodies these qualities and more—he’s inanely oracular as well as belligerently anti-authoritarian, encouraging his students to “stick it to the Man.”
Rock ‘n’ roll pedantry is perhaps an unexplored subject for comedy. “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school,” Bruce Springsteen (not one of Dewey’s heroes) proudly sang in “No Surrender.” Dewey instructs his charges in three-chord guitar, explains that they have to be “pissed off” to write a rock song, and elucidates the history of Led Zeppelin. School of Rock is The Blackboard Jungle (or High School Confidential! or Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) in reverse: The teacher liberates his uptight students and shows them how to be “cool” in a safe way. However anarchic Dewey may seem, he dwells in a drug-free zone and his charges, like himself, are uniformly pre-sexual.
No one in this PG-13 world is particularly dazed and confused, but everyone has his or her inner rock god—even Joan Cusack’s amusingly nervous principal is a closeted Stevie Nicks. Piloted by Black’s endearingly obnoxious true believer, School of Rock successfully navigates between the sentimental Scylla of Dead Poets Society and the cloying Charybdis of The Bad News Bears. Of course, given Dewey’s oft-stated belief that “one great rock show can change the world,” there’s a nearly unavoidable Rocky ending. But even this is mitigated by the movie’s inane energy. And what is culture anyway?