Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Richard Linklater’s new college comedy, “Everybody Wants Some!!,” takes place over three or four days in 1980, but it may have more to say about growing up, experience, and relationships than all of the 2013 “Boyhood” with its decade-long frame of reference. I took “Boyhood” to be a noble failure. Except for the searching, trying-to-stay-afloat father played by Ethan Hawke, the movie’s characters are dull and predictable. Lacking a compelling focal point (Ellar Coltrane seems to have little to offer as an actor or personality), Linklater falls back on underscoring banal ideas concerning childhood. And his treatment of Patricia Arquette’s mom is too reverent. We’re asked to celebrate her every time she does something routine, like gain weight or go back to school. It’s possible that in “Boyhood” Linklater’s methods and his intentions were at cross-purposes. He posited the boy as an observer, the position the director occupied in movies like “Slacker” and “Waking Life,” but he’s also the movie’s subject. In asking the kid to be both Linklater consigns him to being nothing.
The gimmick of “Boyhood” — the long shooting period — is what it was most frequently praised for, and yet I felt Linklater was neutered by it. His most distinctive movies — “Slacker,” “Waking Life,” the “Before” series — are temporally concentrated; they’re records of peculiar moments, characters, and locations. “Boyhood” attempts to be a synthesis of many non-peculiar moments, and in the process it loses specificity and potency. The picture wanders from one ordinary scene to the next. The critics who praised “Boyhood” for its novelty seemed to have forgotten that Linklater had already treated aging with documentary frankness and intimacy. In the three “Before” pictures one can see Hawke and Julie Delpy grow progressively older, and it’s (mostly) fascinating because the actors rarely fail to provide their director with personal material onto which he can embroider his thoughts and observations. The best Linklater films have the quality of collaborative essays – a quality largely lacking in “Boyhood.”
That quality is also lacking in “Everybody Wants Some!!” — or at least the collaborative aspect of it is. In form it’s one of Linklater’s most conventional films, a cousin to “Dazed and Confused.” It features actors who are performing according to a set script, one that’s firmly grounded in genre. And yet I think that at the commentarial level it’s more potent than either “Dazed” or “Boyhood.” It may be the director’s most successful merging of the experimental and conventional strains of his work.
Initially, the specter of “Boyhood” looms over “Everybody Wants Some!!” The earlier film ended as its subject departed for college; this new one begins as he arrives at Texas State. But right from the start it’s clear we’re on cheerier, less sanctimonious ground. As Blake Jenner’s Jake arrives on campus, conspicuously slow-driving his muscle car and grooving to “My Sharona” (a callback to the opening of “Dazed and Confused”), he ogles the girls in their hip-hugging mom jeans, thereby signaling the lowbrow thrust of the project.
“Everybody” is proudly lowbrow. In fact, it’s possible to take both it and “Dazed” as homages to the teen exploitation pictures of the 1970s. Not to “American Graffiti” or “Big Wednesday,” which tackle big themes and feature showy directorial flourishes, but to more downmarket fare like “The Van” and “The Pom Pom Girls,” both products of the underappreciated Crown International Pictures. At their best the movies released by CIP were bright and unpretentious records of plebeian culture and attitudes, and they remain among the most casual American movies made outside of the ’30s. While “Dazed” never quite achieved that level of casualness — it was Linklater’s studio debut, and watching it one can feel the director willing the cast and material into a shape consistent with commercial viability — “Everybody” is so nonchalant that I suspect many will take it as aimless. But if, like me, you value Linklater as the least pushy of major American filmmakers, you may experience “Everybody” as a reprieve from the ever-increasing aggressiveness of popular culture. It has the unhurried feel of an oasis.
Jake plays baseball; so do the guys with whom he’s living. The picture is about Jake’s absorption into this motley male unit. Though in establishing its relationships the screenplay hits familiar beats, Linklater’s handling of the characters is Renoir-like in its generosity. Those introduced as possible villains slowly reveal new facets, until we’re able to see them in the round, and understand their contributions to the group’s dynamic. As McReynolds, Tyler Hoechlin wears a Keith Hernandez mustache and maintains a bubble of confidence peculiar to those set apart by talent and proficiency. He’s the leader not by virtue of popularity or consensus, but because he’s the best, and because he constantly proves he’s the best. When Jake beats him at ping pong, McReynolds explodes — he takes it as a challenge. In a more conventional screenplay this moment would pay off in a showdown between veteran and newcomer. But when we next focus on McReynolds he’s captaining a practice and smoothing over interpersonal rough spots with the deftness of a seasoned leader. By this point Jake’s place on the team is established. He and his teammates are synced to McReynolds’ bravado, and his acceptance of the prevailing hierarchy is a measure of his unselfishness, his willingness to collaborate. Rather than serving as a springboard for conflict, the tiff between the two men has humanized them, and brought us closer to understanding their bond.
For a sometime director of art films Linklater has an unusually developed sense of the roles played by competition and gamesmanship in the development of young men. A former baseball player (there’s more than a little self-portrait in Jake), he’s wholly nonjudgmental about sports, and he takes the semi-cruel jousting that goes on among dudes to constitute the fabric of male relationships. Though Linklater doesn’t make a big deal of it, one can sense his attitude toward the in-your-face touchiness of contemporary college life. Among other things “Everybody Wants Some!!” is an appreciation of the social role of the microagression.
The parts of “Everyone” that are focused on Jake and his baseball-playing buds are so effective that I think it’s fair to call it the best baseball movie in recent memory despite the fact that it contains very little actual baseball. Unfortunately, Linklater fumbles when handling Jake’s romance. Though Zoey Deutch, in the role of Jake’s love interest Beverly, has a cultivated brittleness that makes for an amusing contrast with the laidback baseball guys (Beverly is a theater major), she and Jenner have little chemistry, and Linklater hurries through their scenes together, presumably because he’s in a rush to return to the film’s raison d’être, its male relationships. (How good is Linklater at writing for women? He gets by when he has Julie Delpy as a collaborator, but his concerns strike me as largely male in emphasis.) The picture’s worst scene may be a split-screen telephone conversation between the young lovers. Its editing, which is nudgy and impatient, betrays the easygoing quality of the surrounding movie. It may be an example of a scene whose failure was aided by an attempted rescue by editing.
Yet the screenplay’s sports-arts nexus provides some benefits beyond the dramatic beats of its love narrative. Linklater uses it to sketch in an essayistic commentary on the broadening of perspectives afforded by college, and to eulogize the cultural free-for-all of the early 1980s. “Everybody” constantly reminds us that it takes placing at a time when punk, new wave, and hip hop were starting points rather than ends, and some of its best scenes involve the team’s straight-and-narrow jocks happily giving themselves over to the wildness of punk and the grandiloquent self-involvement of the theater.
This is essential to Linklater’s plan. He wants to show that adventurousness and openness are vital to the development of nascent personalities. Maybe that’s why he puts the movie’s philosophy into the mouth of its charlatan, Willoughby, a leftover from the ’70s played with boho righteousness by Wyatt Russell. After breaking the school record for longest bong hit, Willoughby tells the guys that college is “about finding out who you are, in the space between the notes they’re offering you.” In Linklater’s films, as in those of other talky directors (Eric Rohmer among them), the wisdom often clonks you on the head. You bristle at, then appreciate, its obviousness. Here Willoughby’s words obtain a special glow after we learn that he’s an older man who’s used his baseball talent to bullshit his way into a series of universities, presumably breaking the record for bong hits at each of them. He’s kicked out of Texas State upon being discovered. His aura remains, though, as does his plea to “find the tangents within the framework.” If the alpha-dog McReynolds provides his teammates with a standard by which they can measure their achievements, this genial fraud offers them a way, however loopy, towards soul and poetry. Wherever Willoughby’s path takes him, you can’t help but hope he stays between the notes.