Class Dismissed

May the most passionate cliché win: Jack Black in 'The School of Rock'
Paramount Pictures

Never work with kids or animals. Quaint how that showbiz maxim implies that an actor values his pride over his bank account, and unsurprising that, with young'uns raking in the cash, it's now more honored in the breach than the observance.

With The School of Rock, Jack Black boldly stomps where so many witness protection programees and undercover cops have gone before: into the classroom, under false pretenses. But while Richard Linklater's direction accommodates the demands of mainstream familyish comedy, Black's shtick is unsoftened here. He, for one, is not gonna let those brats upstage him.

Black is Dewey Finn, a deadbeat musician whose pal Ned (Mike White, who wrote the script) is after him for a healthy lump of back rent. Dewey is counting on the prize money from an upcoming battle of the bands. But his group boots him, so when a private school calls to offer Ned a substitute teaching slot, Dewey shows up in his place, hair slicked, bow tie framed by an open scarf, like a Looney Toons caricature of an opera singer. He sets out to exploit his students' musical gifts for his own nefarious purposes, forming a band and encouraging them to flex their dormant rebellious instincts--and, along the way, as will so oft happen, both he and the children learn a little something about themselves and each other. But while good feelings are basked in by all once Dewey's scheme is exposed (as one 'Macca-5' raves on the Internet Movie Database, "It reminded me of Sister Act...but with kids instead of nuns, and Rock instead of Gospel crap"), there's an ugly truth hinted at underneath: Some people really shouldn't follow their dreams, because they're talentless clods.

That's never more than hinted at, though, because Jack Black cannot play a talentless clod. The most unyielding comic presence of our time doesn't allow us to entertain the thought that he's a waste of humanity, not even when he's passed out in a lump of blankets on the living room floor. Most physical comedians thrive by revealing a hidden grace--and hence, pathos--in their klutziness. But Black demands laughs through bodily self-assurance, by demonstrating full command over his movements. Besides, his foils are such underwhelming mismatches: The snooty headmistress (Joan Cusack) is a pushover, Ned's girlfriend (a criminally underutilized Sarah Silverman) is too shrill a harridan, and White has underwritten his part so drastically you sometimes forget it's his identity that Dewey has swiped.

Dewey is no joke, and the more ridiculously he behaves, the more he insists he has every right to do so. Black's snarling defiance can make our hero one righteous id: When he tells a heavy girl that there's nothing wrong with being fat--after all, he is--she asks why he doesn't go on a diet, and he recoils, saying he likes to eat. But it can also make him one self-righteous ego: When he barks at kids for digging Christina Aguilera or Puff Daddy, Black cements his identity as the cinema representative of classic rock conservatism. The film's irony--that rebel rock can be taught in a classroom--isn't particularly ironic, because, as taught by Dewey, rebel rock is a fixed form, with rules. In fact, it's hard to believe that the school's curriculum, whatever it is, could be as doctrinaire as Dewey's. The finale, which pits Dewey and his kids against his slick former bandmates, sets two clichéd notions of rock up against each other; Dewey's wins, of course, because it's the more passionate cliché.

For the most part, the kids manage to transcend showbiz cute as they glide along their preordained story arcs. The guitarist overcomes his reticence to confront his bully of a dad; the drummer goes punk in a cute way; the Asian kid isn't solely included because him talk so funny. And as Summer, the grade-grubber who becomes the band's manager, Miranda Cosgrove is almost disturbingly charismatic. Unfortunately, these kids all seem reasonably content at the start of the film, and Black prods them into perdition as desperately as Homer Simpson going back to college and trying to teach his new nerd friends how to party. In other words, the old boomer fear that the younger generation just doesn't know how to fight the power has been reclaimed by Gen-Xers. Meet the new boss, etc.

But while Dewey successfully goads his students into fulfilling their dreams (okay, his dreams, nitpicker), the kid actors here fight back against the top-billed adult bully with surprising success. In the end, of course, Black holds the spotlight against his cute co-stars--so much so, in fact, that if he's not careful, he may just wind up hosting American Juniors 2. Or paired with a crime-fighting sheepdog.

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