School of Rock

Jack Black’s early cinematic transcript from Hollywood’s school of hard knocks was fairly lackluster. But three years ago in High Fidelity, the doggedly persistent Black learned a new trick: how to steal the show. He unleashed the manic — and surprisingly musical — Barry, and upstaged the likes of John Cusack with his antics. With starring placement in Shallow Hal (2001) and Orange County (2002), Black graduated into a higher Hollywood class of mugging and physical comedy.

Black is the valedictorian of School of Rock; Dewey Finn is one of his studies on the comically lovable loser. He’s a ridiculously starry-eyed and mediocre rocker, the kind of guy whose tarnished heart of gold ends up inevitably polished.

With Black’s Dewey, a script by screenwriter-actor Mike White (who broke out with Chuck & Buck) and one of Quentin Tarantino’s film-geek buddies, Richard Linklater (Tape) directing, School of Rock had potential. But it doesn’t quite live up to it.

First there’s White’s mostly cribbed plot. It’s disappointing for a writer who scripted something as originally twisted as The Good Girl (2002). To be fair, it’s fresh that Dewey ludicrously, and fraudulently, assumes the role of fifth grade teacher in the town’s best and brightest school, shuts the door of the classroom and fantastically proceeds to substitute teach not three R’s, but two: rock ’n’ roll. Soon he transforms class 5E into a band, the titular School of Rock. But still, this is the stuff of a sitcom series. And White provokes his characters with an almost nonstop block of plot clichés that continue through to the feel-good ending.

Linklater seems as much an underachiever here as White. It’s a puzzler worthy of the SAT why a director who’s intellectually experimented with styles from near-documentary in his breakout feature, Slacker (1991) to the psychedelic animation of Waking Life (2001) would sign up for a typically Hollywood Jack Black comedy. (But then, Linklater’s gone Hollywood before with The Newton Boys.)

Back to Black. He often seems to tenaciously play his shtick in a virtual vacuum. Like Jim Carrey, Black can test even a veteran actor such as Joan Cusack (less a match for Black than her brother John). So the grade-school play-acting chops of some of the children can’t be graded on a curve.

As entertainment though, School of Rock somehow passes. It gets some laughs, some musical thrills and pint-sized empowerment as the kids kick out the jams. It even jerks some tears. School of Rock may not be at the top of its class, but it doesn’t flunk out.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].