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Jack Black is not a particularly funny man. He can pull off a one-liner, and he brightly sustains the Chris Farley torch of manic physical clowning, but it’s clear that his comedic range is inversely related to his girth. Could you ever see Black settling into the kind of roles that Bill Murray now occupies so comfortably?
Fortunately, the producers of The School of Rock have forged an ideal vehicle for Black’s brand of mischief, and with a sturdy cast and script behind him, he manages to whip up some of the biggest laughs of the year.
Black plays Dewey Finn, a guitarist whose ambitions for his amateur band far overshadow his merely adequate musical abilities. After a typically disastrous bar gig, Finn is thrown out of the band, rendering him even less capable of paying the rent that he owes his substitute teacher roommate. But the God of Rock, to whom Finn seems to pray regularly, has bigger plans for his disciple and grants him a subbing job at a prestigious private school. Posing as his roommate, he assumes the responsibility of educating a classroom of unusually well-behaved fifth graders, who he discovers to be, rather conveniently, excellent musicians. Within days, Finn has assembled a makeshift rock band of the students and entered them into the local Battle of the Bands.
The story’s premise allows Black to tap into the keg of pure rock fervor from which he drank as a record store clerk in the film High Fidelity and in his band Tenacious D. But despite his incensed grimaces and feral guitar-groping, Black actually gives something akin to a complete performance. The sundry scenes in which Finn responds to the pupils’ various insecurities give a faint glimmer of hope that Black might have an acting career after his novelty wears off. As principal of the school, Joan Cusack delightfully combines insufferable prudence with button-down prurience in an endless display of forced smiles and facial contortions.
But, as is expected from a film of this nature, the true stars are the tykes who effortlessly steal each of their scenes. Particularly effective are Billy (Brian Falduto), the band stylist with a surefire future in the Fab Five, and Summer (Miranda Cosgrove), whose tireless moralizing as “class fac-TO-tum” and eventual band manager provides a wonderful foil to the wayward Finn. In fact, the students are so endearing and so memorable that their presence becomes ultimately more welcome than Black’s. Quite often—and especially during the film’s climax—the movie is content showcasing Black’s irreverent behavior when it should have been spotlighting the more appealing tween performances.
Writer Mike White (The Good Girl), whose previous work has generally been audacious and edgy, consistently plays it safe in School of Rock, using Black as a cushion upon which to fall back in the least comically risky manner. Similarly, the past films of director Richard Linklater (Waking Life, Dazed and Confused) have hardly suggested a proficiency at producing inspirational mainstream comedies of this type. However, both White and Linklater prove adept at producing conventional material uncommonly well. School of Rock echoes with comic and emotional resonance without getting mired in sentimentality, allowing Black to revel in a role in which he manages to hit all of his notes perfectly.
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