Richard Linklater has never cared about plot in his movies and he’s never really concerned himself with adhering to genre, either. What Linklater loves to do is is simply hang with his characters, and whether it’s the ‘70s teens of Dazed and Confused, the constantly evolving relationship of Jesse and Celine in the Before Sunrise series, or the 12-year-trek of Boyhood, the results have been consistently wonderful. Through some magical form of cinematic alchemy, Linklater’s single-minded focus on characters translates into engaging moviegoing experiences that feel both incredibly personal yet undeniably universal.
Given how I’ve felt about his work, I was excited to kick off my SXSW by seeing his latest film, Everybody Wants Some!! (two exclamation points, just like the Van Halen song). The long-gestating project has been described — and is being marketed — as a “spiritual successor” to Dazed and Confused, and the comparison is apt. It’s about a freshman’s first few days after arriving at college on a baseball scholarship, and it’s all too easy to imagine Dazed’s Jason London in the lead role if the movie had been made 20 years ago. The outrageous characters are there, as are the raucous shenanigans, all accompanied by Linklater’s fondness for both nostalgia and stoner humor. It all clearly works exactly as Linklater intended, but there’s just one tiny problem: hanging out with these characters can actually be pretty annoying.
Blake Jenner is Jake, starting his college career at a school in Southeast Texas. In what seems like a total movie contrivance (but is apparently pulled from Linklater’s own life), the members of his baseball team all live together in a pair of houses, where they’re left to their own devices. The movie takes place over the last few days before class starts, as Jake learns the ropes from his aggressively-posturing teammates: they get drunk, they get high, but most of all, they look for girls. The title Everybody Wants Some!! isn’t just a Van Halen reference; it’s the literal description of nearly every single character’s driving purpose in life as they hit clubs, bars, parties, and back again.
Jake, of course, is the audience surrogate: he’s the athlete that’s a little smarter and more well-read than all the rest, and would actually consider talking to a girl instead of just trying to get her into bed. But he’s surrounded by several other characters who, while they don’t leave the same impression as Rory Cochrane’s Slater or Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson from Dazed, do distinguish themselves from the rest of the ensemble. Wyatt Russell (Kurt's son) is particularly riveting as a baseball pitcher-turned-pot-smoking-shaman, and Glen Powell (Scream Queens) is consistently hilarious as Finnegan, a shameless player whose ability to spew pseudo-intellectual nonsense is second only to his impressive mustache. Relative newcomer Juston Street is unforgettably manic, consistently one twitch away from completely blowing his top. But for all of those great performances, there are other characters that just slip quickly from memory: The Dumb Freshman, The Hyper-Competitive Guy, The Kid With The Silly Facial Hair.
Ultimately, despite the fact that these characters all have their idiosyncrasies, they’re largely cut from the same cloth: they’re all jocks, they all just want to find girls, and they all really love getting drunk. Part of what Linklater is doing here is romanticizing and mythologizing his own collegiate experiences, and all of the elements I’ve talked about are de rigeur for any college movie, whether it’s Revenge of the Nerds or Old School. And it would be disingenuous to suggest that it's not true to life — whether that life is Linklater's or any other current or former college kid. The problem with Everybody Wants Some!! is that it doesn't offer much beyond that: it’s a movie about bros, for bros, and there are only so many conversations about how sweet it would be to get laid one can take before things start getting really, really old.
What’s most peculiar about it is that it’s a problem that feels relatively new in Linklater’s work. Dazed and Confused had its share of alpha jocks cruising for girls, of course, but that film also featured a rich diversity of points of view: geeks, stoners, dweebs, good kids looking to be bad, bad kids looking to be good, and every other variant of the high school social strata you could imagine. Everyone was given focus, and the result was a movie that felt rich, sincere, and universal. Everybody Wants Some!!, on the other hand, feels limiting — like you’re stuck at a frat party without a ride after everybody’s gotten too drunk. It becomes even more obvious with Jake starts hanging out with a performing arts major named Beverly (Vampire Academy’s Zoey Deutch) late in the movie. She’s the only real female character in the entire film, and the moment she becomes part of the storyline the movie begins to metamorphosize into something much more compelling — and much more in line with Linklater’s more recent work. Away from his teammates, Jake drops his macho pretense, and begins to explore what college is all about: exploring new things and new ideas on the way to discovering who he really is.
In all fairness to the film, that theme does pop up from time to time, particularly in its excellent use of period music. Jake and his bros hit bar after bar in their pursuit of getting lucky, and it takes them everywhere from a punk club to a disco joint to a cowboy saloon. (There’s also a phenomenal sequence when several of them perform a flawless rendition of The Sugar Hill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight"). The players all try on different identities — different clothes, ways of talking, and attitudes — to try to fit into each scene, and while it’s all in the same base pursuit it does hint at the prospect of self-discovery that is facing them all.
The SXSW opening night screening of Everybody Wants Some!! was framed by mentioning how important Linklater’s work has been to the festival and the local filmmaking community at large, and I’m sure I’m committing some form of Austin treason by not unequivocally loving the movie (the crowd I saw it with certainly seemed to). But it’s a movie from a writer-director whose work I respect and enjoy, that doesn’t seem to include the same kind of nuance and emotional realism that’s made him so compelling. Linklater is in many ways a kind of movie secret agent, making films that are unconventional in form and function, but so effortlessly entertaining that the audience may not ever realize that’s what they’re seeing. Everybody Wants Some!! still pulls that trick off, but despite its laughs and moments of fun it can’t help but feel like a step back.
Everybody Wants Some!! opens April 1st. You can watch Dazed and Confused for free on Amazon Prime Video.