What to Watch: Unraveling Seymour in ‘Ghost World’ (2001)

A scathing bit of social commentary makes this one to watch.

Ghost World is a 2001 black comedy about two recently graduated high school students with devious designs for a lonely man looking for a date, finding some truths about themselves along the way.

Comic book adaptations have historically been a toss-up, some hitting the marks and others failing to capture the spirit of the source material. Unsurprisingly, most of these films are about brooding male anti-heroes and are soaked in graphic violence. With Ghost World, it is about young women, and while there are no epic battles with swords or firearms, it is violent, just not with blood and guts but rather brains and hearts.

Directed by Terry Zwigoff, who wrote the screenplay with the comic’s creator Daniel Clowes, Ghost World is a scathing look at modern society through the eyes of two young and cynical women who view their role in it all in different ways. Zwigoff strived to maintain the integrity of the comic not just in the writing but also the feel, and worked with Brazilian cinematographer Affonso Beato in creating a look that was hyperrealistic but also grounded, saturating colors and using light and framing to give the film its distinct style. A complex and highly-interpretative film, it was a box office disappointment but a huge critical favorite.

Ghost World
Ghost World, 2001 © United Artists

THE STORY: Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are best friends fresh out of high school with no immediate goals. Social outcasts, they search for amusements and detest the banality of modern life. Seeing an ad in the personals where a man named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) is hoping a woman he met earlier will contact him, they decide to prank him and set up a date. Watching him though, waiting for a girl who will never show, Enid begins to feel sympathy, and after finding him selling vintage records in a garage sale, befriends him, realizing they have much in common. She aims to set him up with a woman.

Ghost World
Ghost World, 2001 © United Artists

But … there are issues that eventually begin to test the relationship of them all and the girls learn that real life is a harsh place where consequences have impact and truths can sting with fearsome effect. While their story is often funny, it is also dark and themes of loneliness and separation give the film some edge as plans backfire and friendships are betrayed. It all ends in a brilliant moment of ambiguity that leave open much for discussion.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Naturally, it is Johansson who would compel a new viewer to the film, an early work of hers, she was, at the time, barely known and her now famous beauty and allure were yet to propel her to superstardom. Awkward and slack-shouldered, she plays Rebecca with great detachment and plenty of bite. The less dark of the pair, she is nonetheless a cynic with rivulets of cracks about her who finds the heavy armor of that life a burden to carry every day.

Ghost World
Ghost World, 2001 © United Artists

Birch is also very good, but keep your eye on Buscemi who is the keystone to the whole film, his performance a sublime bit of misery and self-loathing that is the true heart of the movie. An everyman buried under heaps of repression, insecurity, and a hermit like existence, Seymour is a remarkable character, one that we somehow feel great affinity for as he slips further into his own abyss.



A GREAT MOMENT: And so it should come as no surprise that the best moments involve Seymour, including an early scene when the girls visit him at his aforementioned garage sale, still intent on poking fun. However, once Enid finds herself taken by the lovable loser, she finds in him a man of great passions trapped in a proverbial ship wreck.

Ghost World
Ghost World, 2001 © United Artists

After spending time with him, learning of his love for classic jazz and his penchant for collecting antiquities of the jazz era, she strives to find him happiness, making him a kind of project. These include failed attempts to get him a date by taking him to bars and such.

Ghost World
Ghost World, 2001 © United Artists

In this one moment, they are in his apartment celebrating his birthday, for which she has stuck a single candle in a store-bought cupcake. As he leans in to blow out it out, he hurts his back, revealing the elastic brace he wears for lumbar support and another little idiosyncrasy of his that continues to illustrate the breadth of who he is. As he adjusts the piece, she tells of someone she likes, and there is a moment where he actually thinks she might be talking about him, as he has naturally taken to her charms, but of course, she is not.

Ghost World
Ghost World, 2001 © United Artists

It’s an incredible moment of vulnerability that is so disarming as it completes the picture that is “Seymour,” and has us aching for the fragile little man both in body and spirit. It’s compounded by a phone call from a woman named Dana, who is in fact the girl from the personal ad, but Seymour is so convinced of his worthlessness that he dismisses it for a prank. Buscemi is just so good in this role, and his delivery of Seymour is one of his best performances, one of the great hapless characters in cinema history.

THE TALLY: Ghost World is a clever and savage comedy that is great fun to watch simply to try and piece together what the ending means when it comes, a head-scratcher that makes for great debates. Wonderfully off-center, this isn’t your traditional teen romp but a harrowing look at broken young woman who can’t see until it’s too late what she has become. It’s what to watch.

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