Let's come right out and say it: "School of Rock" made me laugh harder than any movie I've seen this year. The giggles start coming right at the get-go, when Jack Black, as the fiercely committed but less than inspired rock-and-roller Dewey Finn, howls his way through a song, then hurls himself shirtless and triumphant into the mosh pit... where the horrified crowd declines to catch him.
It takes much more than the world's indifference to dampen Dewey's passion. "I serve society by rocking!" this unreconstructed slacker announces--shortly before he's dumped by his band. Meanwhile, his nerdy substitute-teacher roommate Ned (screenwriter Mike White), egged on by his nagging girlfriend (Sarah Silverman), threatens to evict him unless he forks over the rent. Desperate for cash, he steals Ned's name and his gig subbing at a prestigious prep school, where he instructs his startled students to take recess all day. But when he discovers the kids have musical skills, his great idea is born: he'll turn the uptight preppy grinds into a down-and-dirty rock-and-roll band.
Richard Linklater, director of "Slacker" and "Before Sunrise," is not a filmmaker you'd expect to be making a studio movie that sounds, on paper, as formulaic as "The Bad News Bears." But "Bad News Bears," let's not forget, was a terrific formula movie, and so is "School of Rock." Linklater was an inspired choice on the part of producer Scott Rudin, for he's naturally resistant to cutesiness and sentimentality, and his comic timing proves pitch perfect. If this is "selling out," it should happen more often.
The casting of the kids is spot on, from the prissy grade-grubber (Miranda Cosgrove) who becomes the band's super-efficient manager (having rejected the assignment of "groupie") to the painfully uncool, piano-playing Chinese-American kid (Robert Tsai) who has no idea what his teacher means by "sticking it to The Man." The kids, in essence, play group straight man to Black, and Black gives back everything he's got. It's a bravura, all-stops-out, inexhaustibly inventive performance. I don't know how much was improvised, and how much comes from White's sharp screenplay, but Black may never again get a part that displays his mad-dog comic ferocity to such brilliant effect. He, and the movie, kick ass.