As far as “School of Rock” goes, to watch Jack Black is to love him. I liked Black as a burnout in “Orange County” and a music freak in “High Fidelity,” but his role as a burnt out musician in the hilarious new film “School of Rock” fits him like a glove. Black is a pudgy, unshaven madman; he contorts his face like a cartoon and wildly swivels his legs like Elvis Presley high on pixie sticks.
Back plays Dewey Finn, a down on his luck rocker who has been kicked out of his band just weeks before a big competition, and he is very late on his rent to his roommate, Ned, played by Mike White. On top of that, Ned’s girlfriend, Patty, played by Sarah Silverman, is desperately trying to get Ned to kick Dewey out. When a prep school calls the apartment to offer Ned a job, Dewey answers the call and signs up for the $600 a week paycheck-despite his lack of any teaching credentials.
The first few days of class under Dewey’s reign of laziness are made up entirely of recess-until he listens in on the kids during music class and realizes they actually have some talent. Dewey believes they may have enough talent to compete in the Battle of the Bands for the $20,000 grand prize. And so, Dewey begins the secret class project: starting the rock band. Of course, if there is a movie set in a prep school, under law, there has to be a stuck up principal. Here, she is played by Joan Cusak, in one of the funnier supporting roles in the movie.
Dewey takes it upon himself to introduce the kids to the world of rock and roll, something he is a die-hard fan of. He hands out CDs for the kids to listen for homework, and steers them away from Christina Aguilera and Puff Daddy. Meanwhile, he assigns them roles for the band: some are singers, some play their instruments, some work for security and some are groupies. Of course, Dewey has to help the kids with the typical fears: the keyboard player is unpopular, one of the singers has stage fright, the guitarist’s parents don’t want him listening to rock n’ roll, and so on.
But despite these cliched problems, the kids turn in some good performances. A movie like this could be ruined by annoying little brats, but the little guys actually play their own instruments and do their own singing. The musical standout is definitely Maryam Hassan as Tomika, a shy, overweight girl who can belt out a tune like a mini-Aretha Franklin. The classroom scenes, with interaction between Dewey and the kids, bring about the funniest scenes in the movie, especially when Joan Cusak sits in on Dewey’s “math lesson.”
The premise is strikingly similar to some remarkably crude yet remarkably successful Adam Sandler movies-especially “Big Daddy,” in which Sandler assumes his roommates identity to adopt a kid. But “School of Rock” is far less vulgar; there is very little drug or sex talk, and absolutely no toilet humor. Even so, the movie is flat-out hysterical, thanks very much to Jack Black. While someone like Sandler or David Spade or even Jim Carrey would have to rely on crass humor, Black can be funny without being tasteless.
But Black isn’t the only talent behind “School of Rock”; a big chunk of the credit should go to Richard Linklater, who directs, and Mike White, who wrote and costars as Ned. Both filmmakers have found critical success with independent movies, but neither has had much commercial success. Linklater wrote and directed the cult film “Dazed and Confused” as well as “Slacker” and “Waking Life,” all of which were appreciated by critics, but did not find a commercial audience. White, who often stars in his movies, has written “Chuck and Buck,” “The Good Girl” and “Orange County”; only the latter has met with a big box office payoff. So Linklater and White know how to make a good movie, and in the end, their sense of balance may be what saves “School of Rock.” The movie walks a fine line, it’s very funny without being crude and touching without being sappy.
In short, “School of Rock” is a true crowd pleaser. Little kids who know nothing about rock n’ roll will enjoy it just as much as adults or teenagers who grew up with it. Jack Black is universally funny and appealing, and while the story is cliched, the acting, dialogue and direction make up for it. Plus, the movie’s rousing climax at the Battle of the Bands delivers some catchy rock tunes.
While it doesn’t have the sex or swearing of the typical PG-13 comedy, I have to say, I never laughed harder at a cleaner movie. Sometimes I’m all about toilet humor, but I have to admit, it’s refreshing to see a Hollywood comedy without the trademark crass of a Hollywood comedy.