Fun at the expense of others

Jack Black’s turn as a wacky teacher leaves some of his students out in the cold.

by Tom Horgen

School of Rock” contains the funniest scene in all of film so far this year.

Jack Black, in all his buffoonery, begins his first day as a fifth-grade substitute teacher by furiously ripping up his class’s star system.

Viewers might remember that archaic method our teachers used to reward and punish us. It was brutal. They would post a long sheet of paper in the classroom with all our names on it. We’d get stars if we were good, and in some cases, black marks if we were bad.

In the film, Black’s character first notices the list of names and asks Summer, the class know-it-all, about the stars. The winsome brat, who has more stars than anyone, eagerly informs him of their meaning. Her snicker only annoys Black, but when she tells him about the black demerit marks, he explodes with anger, tearing the list from the wall. Summer grumbles as the evidence of her yearlong brown-nosing is ripped into tiny pieces.

And so goes the theme of this fluffy popcorn comedy.

“School of Rock” insists on kicking dirt in the face of restriction. Break the tools they use to hold us back. The star system? Bah! What good does it do? Throw it out. And let rock ‘n’ roll be your savior.

Black plays Dewey Finn, a loser’s loser. He’s just been kicked out of his lame rock band and owes his roommate boatloads of rent money. To solve his financial problem, he does as any good loser would do. He masquerades as his roommate, a substitute teacher, at a pompous private school. The gig turns out to be a two-for-one, as he tosses out the school’s strict code and transforms the class into his own rock band, complete with roadies, security and a stylist. His goal: to enter the local battle of the bands and take home the prize money.

For director Richard Linklater, “School of Rock” is a return to mainstream filmmaking. His last couple of films, “Waking Life” and “Tape,” both from 2001, were almost experimental by Hollywood standards.

“School of Rock” might not be basking in the philosophical discourse of a film like “Waking Life,” but it still comes equipped with Linklater’s expertise.

He has molded Dewey into the feeling of rock ‘n’ roll, the actual feeling. Dewey is like a rock ‘n’ roll Morpheus, distilling the gospel of rock to his young students.

For Dewey, rock music cannot only “melt some faces” with an awesome guitar solo, but it can change the world. Hence his rock motto: “Stick it to the man.”

Linklater runs with this idea for a while and we swallow it happily. Dewey tells us of the days when rock was a means to loosen the grip of old, sheltered America – when Hendrix and the other rock gods were more than just a poster on some frat boy’s wall. And, of course, an uppity private school is the perfect place for rock to wield its liberating force.

For a while, “School of Rock” is like watching 1950s America being eaten up by the new sounds of the 1960s and 1970s all over again.

Unfortunately, the politics of the film get lost in the “Rocky”-style narrative, and then overshadowed by a running gag that becomes somewhat offensive.

Early in the film, when Dewey is divvying up the roles each of his fifth graders will play in the band, a clean-cut, over-zealous kid named Billy volunteers to be the band’s stylist.

Billy is molded from the dominant culture’s gay stereotype – he’s effeminate, speaks at a high pitch, loves fashion and thinks Liza Minelli is rock ‘n’ roll. He is a youthful version of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

Billy is the butt of many jokes – he often gets flustered when Dewey rejects his costume designs. At first, moments like these seem pretty harmless. That’s probably because the stereotype is being attached to a kid.

Some gay men might act more feminine than, say, your average alpha male, but when “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye” are the dominant culture’s only exposure to homosexual images, the stereotype becomes the only point of access to the larger group. In turn, audiences become attuned to laughing at characters like Billy.

This is problematic, especially since the 11-year-old playing Billy probably can’t grasp the significance of the homosexual stereotype he is enacting.

So, should you let this questionable use of gay stereotypes ruin “School of Rock,” a film that contains the funniest scene of the year and some intriguing commentary on the state of rock music?

Yeah, maybe you should.