School of Rock
Starring Jack Black and Joan Cusack
4 stars

School of Rock…how shall I put this?... ROCKS!

To be clear; this is no National-Lampoonesque party movie. If anything, it's the opposite, more similar in tone to a Disney family movie like Holes than something like Old School or Orange Country, which also featured Jack Black.

Jack Black takes some getting used to, particularly in this movie. Indeed, after the first surge of joy at seeing Joan Cusack and Sarah Silverman's names in the credits (more on that later), School of Rock annoys for the first few minutes, focusing as it does on Jack Black's character Dewey, an egotistical would-be rocker. We see Dewey rolling his bandmates' eyes by taking over-the-top guitar solos, we see him getting dumped from his band for sucking, and we see him blowing off the thosands of dollars he owes his roommate.

And while we're wondering if maybe we're not going to enjoy this movie because we just don't dig Jack Black's self-important arrogance, he gets worse, faking his name in order to land a substitute teacher job as a prestigious private elementary school. As he sits there in front of his class, refusing to teach them anything, stealing their lunches, we're just not on his side.

But then… ah, but then. When Dewey notices his students in music class and realizes where he's going to get his new band, there's a subtle, graceful shift in him and in the film. Suddenly we're in a teacher's dream scenario; a class full of talented, attentive, obedient students is the most fun toybox in the world, and Black turns out to be the perfect guy to play in it.

Black is a failed adult, they're exceptional kids, and they meet in the middle. With 25-odd years on these kids Black barely, barely has the advantage, and within a few scenes teacher and students sync up perfectly as he starts to lay out basic rock principles, stances, essentials of rock history. Black is an incredibly generous performer; while many of the movie's big scenes are built around showing off his improvy rambling comedy style -- his acting solos, basically -- he spends just as much time playing to the kids, throwing them lines, drawing them in, dispensing cool where needed.  He slips into an easy rhythm with them, paying attention to everybody, unlocking what's inside this room full of geniuses. Hey, teaching is fun, fun stuff!

It doesn't hurt that the kids are all amazingly, amazingly good. Director Richard Linklater of Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Waking Life is at ease with large casts, investing more life and depth into his 14th most important character than most directors seem to be able to dribble into their protagonists. Within a few scenes this haze of faces has become a room full of individuals, kids like Summer, the grade-grubbing Brainy Smurf who actually really is as smart as she thinks she is, or Zack, the buttoned-up guitarist, or Lawrence, the I'm-not-cool-enough keyboardist.

And, of course, there's Joan Cusack. I just want to thank director Richard Linklater for putting Joan Cusack in a movie and giving her a great character to play. John Cusack's older sister, Joan is one of the funniest character actresses in movies today. Filled with idiosyncrasies and sparks and surprises, she's been criminally, criminally underused by Hollywood; there are alternate dimensions where the 90s are filled with hilarious Joan Cusack comedies, forever unattainable.

Here she plays Principal Mullins, tall and straight as a steel knitting needle, twang-taught with the tension and pressure of her responsibilities. She's funny just to look at, and watching her slooooowly unwind, letting out pings and twitches of humanity, is reason enough to see the movie.

But in fact, she's just a great part of a movie that's filled with great parts and doesn’t really have any crappy parts. None of the characterizations or plot twists are tremendously new or genre-challenging; the film follows established the protocol of teacher movies in which teacher and students take on the best qualities of each other. But Linklater keeps everything moving with the same grace and an eye for the quirks of his actors that he demonstrated in Dazed and Confused, and the result is a picture without obvious gags or jokes but rather a building sense of fun and merriment and laughs that just boil out of the characters and situations. In other words, School of Rock ROCKZ!