Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Steve Buscemi: A Guy Without a Ghost of a Chance

It all started when I was booked to appear on Illeana Douglas’s podcast, I Blame Dennis Hopper (about which more later). Illeana is both an actress in films and a lover of films, and her enthusiasm has led me to check out several movies that feature either her or her beloved grandfather Melvyn Douglas (who won his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1963’s Hud and his second for 1979’s Being There). That’s how I came to watch Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), in which Illeana plays an ultra-sincere but naïve art teacher who interacts with the film’s heroine in an important way.  

Ghost World, based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, is the story of two brand-new high school graduates, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Awkward social outcasts, they strike a rebellious pose, priding themselves on being too good for their classmates as well as the residents of their non-descript suburb. (Note to Angelenos: the bleaky contemporary streets can be found in Santa Clarita.) For a while the film goes on in this vein, showing the two girls making vague attempts to find work and an apartment to share, while unleashing catty remarks on anyone who comes within earshot. But things start to change when, just for the hell of it, they play a dirty trick on a lovelorn man who’s had the bad sense to put a personal ad in the local paper.   

That ad is placed by an obsessive record-collector named Seymour, and he’s played by Steve Buscemi, an actor who is always worth watching. Gradually Enid comes to know Seymour. Though he’s dweebishly unattractive and acutely conscious of his own failings, he has a passion for early jazz that’s contagious. While Rebecca works at her dreary job and obsesses about the amenities of her future apartment, Enid is soaking up new aesthetic ideas. These contribute to the work she does in the summer school art class she must take in order to complete her graduation requirements. She’s got real talent, but her unorthodox approach is going to set her up for eventual failure. 

Meanwhile, she’s coaching poor Seymour in finding love, only to become acutely jealous when he seems to have succeeded. The relationship of these two—the rebellious young woman and the morose, anxious middle-aged man—plays out in surprising ways, and ultimately becomes the film’s heart. 

Birch, so memorable as Kevin Spacey’s disillusioned daughter in 1999’s American Beauty, is a memorable presence. But for me the movie belongs to Steve Buscemi, who seems as though he can’t help attracting odd and remarkable roles. In many of them, he dies in grotesque ways—see him ending up in the woodchipper in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. Sometimes he gets away with murder (check out his role as Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs and his recent TV portrayal of a corrupt politician in Boardwalk Empire), but whether he’s fundamentally cowardly or fundamentally brutal he generally comes across as a nogoodnik. That’s why I cherish his rare lovable role, like that of the nebbishy Donny, sidekick to John Goodman’s Walter, in The Big Lebowski. As Seymour in Ghost World, Buscemi is capable of bursts of destructive rage. But for the most part he’s a good guy who knows he’s a loser. He badly wants love, and is capable of great tenderness when he thinks he’s found it. But things never quite seem to resolve in his favor. Having learned from his example, Enid may eventually finds her way out in the the larger world. But alas poor Seymour—he remains stuck in place.

For Illeana Douglas, who introduced me to Ghost World. 


  1. And Illeana was incredible in her role as the free and easy art teacher who embraces Enid's found art after initially being quite disappointed in the work Enid was creating. The whole thing had me in stitches and I empathized with Enid's plight however snarky she was because I myself am an artist (songwriter) and it's pretty frustrating at a young age to not be taken seriously.

  2. Thanks for writing in, Matt. (Hey, are we cousins or something?) I confess that Ghost World grew on me slowly, because at the start I was pretty tired of the relentless snarkiness of the two girls. As they grew apart, I began to see what this film was about. Do come back to Movieland again soon!