20 December 2004 | Buddy-51
After distinguishing himself in any number of memorable supporting roles, Jack Black finally comes into his own in "The School of Rock," a sporadically funny comedy that is part "Sister Act" and part genial spoof of all those movies about a "super teacher" who brings meaning and purpose to the lives of his students.
Black plays Dewey Finn, an aging rock'n'roller who is still awaiting that moment when he will "make it big" in the music world. He lives with Ned Schneebly, his longtime rocker buddy, who has traded in his dreams of musical glory for a nagging girlfriend and a job as a substitute teacher. Desperate for money to pay the rent, Dewey pretends to be Schneebly and takes a job as a sub at a snooty, tradition-bound prep school, where the last thing the administration and the parents would want is a Jimmy Hendricks knockoff teaching their kids. And since Dewey really only knows one thing, this uncredentialed professorial imposter decides to make rock'n'roll the sole focus of his curriculum, turning these inward, shy, nerdish kids into a viable rock band - all under the radar screen of the ever-watchful administrators and parents of course.
Although the storyline wends its way along a predictable path, writer Mike White and director Richard Linklater find a great deal of warmth and humor in the material. Dewey's utter obsession with rock music and rock history is reflected in the fact that he leads the band members in a prayer to the "god of rock" before a concert, and screams in frustration - "What have they been teaching you kids at this school?" - when he finds out his pupils have never been educated in the basics of Hendricks, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Dewey is so preposterously well-meaning and good-natured that the audience can't help but root for him and his students as they embark on their mad quest to appear at a local battle of the bands competition, unbeknownst to the powers-that-be at the school.
The children playing the students are all winning and charming, and Joan Cusack cuts a sympathetic figure as the uptight school principal who harbors a little bit of Stevie Nicks under her prim and proper exterior. But it is Black who makes this film his own, turning what might have been a buffoonish caricature into a fully-rounded human being. Black is not afraid to cut loose and take over the screen when necessary, hitting heights of unbridled mania to rival the master, Jim Carrey. Yet, he also realizes that he is part of an ensemble effort here and understands the importance of integrating himself into the material and not always dominating it. As a result, even when certain elements of the film fall flat, as they frequently do, Black is always there to prop the movie back up.
"The School of Rock" is an entertaining little comedy, but unlike a real satire which would skewer the conventions of the genre it is attacking, this film loses its nerve and winds up endorsing those conventions. Dewey, for all his talk about defying "The Man," is really a rebel in name only, and the film reflects the kind of feel-good populism that no true hard line iconoclast would be caught dead supporting. I guess it's too much to expect a mainstream Hollywood comedy to launch a truly savage assault on mainstream values (in the way rock, at its best, often does). Still, it might be nice to come across the unexpected sometime (after all, movies like "Dr. Strangelove" and "MASH" were able to do it).
Until then, we'll settle for what we can get. And Jack Black is good enough for now.