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(2003) (Jack Black, Joan Cusack) (PG-13)

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Comedy: A rock 'n roller poses as a substitute teacher so that he can use his elementary school students to enter a battle of the bands contest.
Dewey Finn (JACK BLACK) has had better days. Patty (SARAH SILVERMAN), the girlfriend to his meek roommate Ned Schneebly (MIKE WHITE), wants him to pay up on his substantial back rent, while his own band has just fired him. Thus, when Dewey takes a call for Ned regarding a substitute teacher opening, the unemployed rocker lies that he's Ned and takes the job.

Arriving at Horace Green Prep, Dewey meets the principal, Rosalie Mullins (JOAN CUSACK), as well as the class of elementary school students. Realizing no one will join his new band, as well as that the students need an awakening in their musical knowledge and tastes, Dewey throws out the current curriculum.

In its place, he teaches all things rock 'n roll to the likes of Zach (JOEY GAYDOS JR.), the lead guitarist; Freddy (KEVIN CLARK), the drummer; Katie (REBECCA BROWN), the bass player; Lawrence (ROBERT TSAI), the keyboardist; singers Tomika (MARYAM HASSAN), Alicia (ALEISHA ALLEN) and Marta (CAITLIN HALE); band stylist Billy (BRIAN FALDUTO), band manager Summer (MIRANDA COSGROVE) and others.

With just weeks to go before the big contest, Dewey tries to whip the kids into shape and hopes that no one discovers his goal or ruse of playing a substitute teacher.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
An actor or actress' physical attributes - whether natural or cosmetically altered or enhanced - are often an integral part of their success in the movie business. Right or wrong, various men have used their muscular physiques to force their way in, while it's not beyond some of the ladies to use their feminine assets to do the same.

Beyond the likes of Jim Carrey whose trademark rubbery face and body have worked to his advantage, certain performers become associated with certain physical attributes. There's Tom Cruise and his million dollar smile, Clint Eastwood with his stop you in your tracks squint, and Jack Nicholson's lively and mischievous eyebrows.

Whenever the latter decides to give up using them to marvelous effect and/or they need someone to play him in a biopic, I nominate Jack Black for the part. Once relegated to memorable supporting roles in films such as "High Fidelity" and "The Cable Guy," Black has now come into his own. He's also realized how to use those Nicholson-like eyebrows to full effect and does so to great comic extent in "School of Rock."

Playing an unemployed rock 'n roller without a band, Black's character poses as a substitute school teacher. He then enlists the aid of his elementary school students to help him win a battle of the bands contest. Whenever he feels exasperated or needs to drive home a point (such as informing his students that they're in for a non-traditional semester), he lets those brows loose, and the result is physical cinematic brilliance.

That's not to say that the film exudes the same, although it's certainly a pleasant, charming and fairly entertaining diversion. Part "Almost Famous," part "Dead Poets Society" and part "The Commitments," the film is dominated by Black's overriding comic presence.

If you're a fan of the performer and his occasionally manic style of comedic acting (or overacting, if you will), you'll probably be in hog heaven. On the other hand, if a little of him and that pushes your limits, you might be wise to forgo the offering. I lean toward the former, and there's no denying that with someone other than him and his style of performing in the lead role, the film easily could have been a disaster.

As directed by Richard Linklater ("The Newton Boys," "Dazed and Confused") who works from a script by Mike White ("The Good Girl," "Orange County") - who appears in the film as Black's roommate - the film plays off every kid's fantasy of being in a rock band. In effect then, it is something of a fantasy piece itself when one considers the odds of the main character pulling off what he attempts.

Like any "assemble the band" film, this one features the usual scenes of colorful characters auditioning, rehearsing, facing various obstacles and finally performing together. The difference, or course, is that the band members are elementary school students who are somewhat coerced into the act. Considering the adult and kids setup, there's no doubt that the man will help himself by helping the children through their various predicaments and issues.

While it goes through those predictable motions, the effort isn't as deep or meaningful as it sounds. In fact, and despite the posturing of the main character to teach the kids about "real" rock music versus much of the pablum that's disguised as the same today, the film is the equivalent of bubble gum pop in terms of story and character. It's all glossy, formulaic and really just designed to be mostly mindlessly entertaining without taxing one's neurons too much.

On that level, it works rather well. Black, who has his own band in real life, is obviously having a blast playing the part and his exuberance is infectious. The fabulous Joan Cusack ("High Fidelity," "Arlington Road"), however, is slightly underused as the stuffy principal who eventually lets her hair down a bit, while screenwriter White and Sarah Silverman ("Evolution," "Heartbreakers") as his pushy girlfriend only have small parts.

The rest go to the young actors and actresses who actually play with Black in their slightly catchy battle of the bands song. While their parts are sketchily drawn at best and there are too many of them for any to stand out, a few of the kids - all making their debut -- are worth noting. Maryam Hassan can belt out the songs like any "American Idol" contestant, while Brian Falduto gets some funny bits as the effeminate band stylist and Miranda Cosgrove plays the school's precocious know-it-all to a T.

Even so, this is obviously Black's picture. James Brown may be noted as being the hardest working man in show business, but Black, and his animated eyebrows, clearly puts a lot of manic effort into playing his part. Lightweight and somewhat fantastical but nevertheless enjoyable and entertaining enough, "School of Rock" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 3, 2003 / Posted September 3, 2003

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