One Man Band

Rock of all Ages: Jack Black plays a substitute teacher in School of Rock.Photo: Andre Schwartz

As the low-grade rocker Dewey Finn, in Richard Linklater’s hilarious School of Rock, Jack Black has a doughy physique and spindly legs that make him look foreshortened. But don’t be fooled—he’s a dynamo. Dewey’s shrieks and power stances and whirling-dervish antics are more than mere showmanship; he’s trying to turn himself into a sun god of hard rock. The only problem is that he is not terribly talented. When he leaps into the crowd during one of his band’s numbers, the audience members are too bored to catch him. He literally falls flat.

Black is in practically every scene of School of Rock, and yet there’s never too much of him. He’s so comically inventive that if you look away from the screen for even a moment, you’ll miss something. His high-energy caterwauling isn’t tiresome, because he’s somehow built a full range of emotional levels into his rant. He’s a living contradiction: a nuanced blunderbuss.

It makes sense that when Dewey isn’t prancing and performing—which he does most of the time, even if it’s only for his own benefit—he’s practically catatonic. Thrown out of his band, he’s a groggy good-for-nothing whose schoolteacher roommate, Ned (Mike White, who also wrote the screenplay), wants him to pay his back rent. So he answers a job call intended for Ned and ends up impersonating his roomie as a replacement teacher at a prestigious Manhattan prep school. With his trimmed shag sideburns and bow tie, he does his best—not much—to look professorial. His fifth-grade class doesn’t know what to make of him, especially when he declares an all-day recess and, hungry, swipes a sandwich from one of his students. For Dewey, being back in the classroom is like revisiting the scene of some primal, long-ago crime: It’s the place where your childhood passion was leached out of you. When he utters words like demerit and curriculum and detention, they leave a chalky taste in his mouth. His students know more about math and science and geography than he does, but he doesn’t care, because he’s there to teach them about something he knows is much more important—how rock can make you feel great. He accidentally discovers that his students are musically gifted, and so, covertly, he turns them into his new band and sets them up for a Battle of the Bands competition. “Rock isn’t about doing things perfect,” he tells them, and quickly the kids loosen up. As they do, Dewey becomes less of a ranter and more of a human being. He actually listens to what the kids have to say. What started out as a jape becomes a mission. He gets them to pledge allegiance to the band.

Linklater, whose previous movies include Slacker, Before Sunrise, and Waking Life, may be the most versatile director of his generation. School of Rock is his most unabashedly mainstream movie by far, and yet it’s commercial in the best way: Like Dewey, Linklater wants to make his audience feel great, and he doesn’t play down to us. He had the good sense to unbridle Jack Black, and the even better sense to keep things from becoming insipid. Although the kids learn to drop their inhibitions, and their disapproving parents mellow out, this movie is too antic and quick-witted to wear its inspirationalism on its sleeve.

Dewey is a flamboyant parody of a hard-rocker, and yet he’s also the real thing; his fervor just about makes up for his lack of talent. He schools his kids in the classics—Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC—but he’s equally in awe of his students’ musicianship. For all his egomania, Dewey knows true excellence when he hears it. He even gets himself to admit to them that he’s not that good. Black is such a quicksilver actor that he can make even this dab of humility seem fresh. He also knows how to slow down and let the other cast members shine. His scenes with the incomparable Joan Cusack, playing Rosalie, the prissy principal he purposefully gets drunk, are sublimely clownish duets. Cusack has one of the great faces for comedy; it can shape itself in an instant to mimic any mood. When Dewey discovers, to his amazement and delight, that Rosalie is a kindred nutcase, his thick eyebrows respond by doing what appears to be the wave.

It would be a shame if only kids went to see this film. Adults who can still plug in to their inner rocker, if only to play air guitar, will love it, too. They may even appreciate it more than the kids, since they can look back on all those years of regimented schooling and laugh at their good fortune in having escaped. In the end, Dewey becomes his own ideal of a model citizen. “I serve society by rocking,” he explains. And so he does.

The Station Agent, a first feature written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, is about a trio of outsiders who learn to trust one another, and it’s a bit too satisfied with its own sweet sensitivities. Peter Dinklage, standing four and a half feet tall, plays Fin McBride, who has a quiet passion for trains and ends up inheriting an abandoned railway station house in rural New Jersey. He just wants to be left alone, but into his life comes Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a distraught local painter, and Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a genial motormouth whose lunch truck sits outside the station. Loneliness in this movie is treated as a state of grace; so is togetherness. McCarthy goes in for lots of artfully framed shots of lyrical anomie; when Fin, in isolation, walks sturdily down the train tracks, we’re cued to register the indomitability of outsiders in an uncaring world. At other times, McCarthy seems intent on making his people as congenially ordinary as possible. All this mythmaking, and demythologizing, is tempered somewhat by the performances. Clarkson and Cannavale, in particular, have too much life in them to be pinned down as symbols for anything.

Denzel Washington plays a cop in the Florida Keys in Carl Franklin’s Out of Time, a crime thriller that is strong on sultry atmosphere—you practically break into a sweat watching it—but weak on believability. Hollywood used to know how to craft these Double Indemnity–style plots in its sleep, but the knack is gone: The pileup of implausibilities in this movie is enough to tax the most ardent fantasist.

One Man Band