SUBURBIA (1997) * 1/2
I am a great fan of Linklater the filmmaker who has charted young people so cleverly . "Slacker," hs firt released feature, popularized the term as the film followed a huge variety of hangers on in Austin with deft sketches, goodhearted irony and a para-Godardian style that was also genuinely Linklaterian.
"Dazed and Confused" (1993) recreated the last day of high school among 1976 students. The generation was the identity-less, post-Vietnam one, poised between the hippie, idealistic, politicized, psychedelic 60s and early 70s, and the pragmatic, Me-Me 80s. Linklater followed the kids like an experienced anthropologist. Though less ironical than in "Slacker" he did not spare us the inner emptiness of the youths, but without judging or taking sides he sifted nicely the mavericks from the herd, showed cool understanding and regaled us with much droll footage.
"Before Sunrise" (1995), was the meeting of strangers on a train, a French woman and an American man, both 23. Their brief encounter lasted well under 24 hours.Uncannily catching the sights and moods of Vienna, it added to the influence of Jean-Luc Godard that of Eric Rohmer and even Jacques Rivette, yet Linklater remained once more his own, original man.
"SubUrbia" is preciously spelled with a capital U for no reason I can detect except that it sounds like a burp. The characters are contemporary 20-somethings; the place is an invented town in Texas (shot in Austin); the film's time is again limited from an early evening to the next morning; the locus is a suburban convenience shop's parking lot where five pals, mostly same-high-school graduates, congregate. Whether or not they have temporary jobs they are innate slackers, but slackers who are not interesting, amusing or touching. More or less nihilistic, they suffer from delayed adolescent angst, drink, smoke, are dazed and confused, and talk talk talk, getting drunk on words and booze. They also beleaguer the young Pakistani owners of the store, often in racist ways.
Jeff comes closest to being the central character. He philosophizes nebulously, has existential and identity problems. Tim received an honorable discharge from the Air Force after he "accidentally" sliced a bit of his finger. He has a chip on his shoulder and much booze in his system. Buff is an unbearably obnoxious, jerky, clowning loudmouth who vaguely thinks of making videos. A spike-haired female called Sooze is no souse but Jeff's girl-friend who wants to become a performance artist in New York. She gives her pals a terrible sample performance of mostly four-letter vituperations. Her personal friend Bee-Bee, a fragile, recovering alcoholic, is younger and outside the clan.
The shiftless quintet has gathered partly to wait for the visit of former classmate Pony who has broken into MTV. Nothing major, but enough to qualify him for a chauffeur-driven limo and an accompanying publicist, rich, spoiled Californian Erica. Following this Waiting for Godot spell come reactions, permutations, jealousies, ingratiations, other tortured and tortuous relationships, more inane talk. No matter how much they pose as desperate or soulful characters or whatever, they remain cardboardishly flat. Particularly frustrating is the case of Jeff who has potential but whose omphaloscopy makes him a kvetcher without a cause.
The movie has no closure, which is OK, but works in blurry red herrings that toy with the audience, which is not OK. Vagueness is all. Speech and behavior may be accurately imitating life among certain types, but the species are indifferent and unappealing. (I suspect that in real life the boys would smell like Parisian "clochards.") Some youths wallow in self-pity, others get irrationally or stupidly aggressive. others yet are plain dumb. The prevailing non-thinking is that society sucks, but no one dreams of doing anything about it.
Watch "60 Minutes" and its investigations show you see vividly how much rottenness there is in this world. Our parking-lot denizens, however, never pinpoint anything specific. And we are left in the dark about the backgrounds of the characters, their families, the influences on them. At the very least, and by omission, the situation is no compliment to home life, school life or American life in general.
For what they attempt to represent -- a dysfunctional segment of young America-the actors are good and well-directed. But the script is one of weak opportunism --this from Eric Bogosian of, among others, "Talk Radio" fame. A few flashes of behavior, action, dialogue and monologue shed no light. We can only react with "OK, guys, you're alienated, I'm sorry. So what else is new?" Before we start caring for them, they would need a brain transplant, and we would need a Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa heart.
It is sad to be negative after years of admiration for Linklater's movies, but the truth is that "SubUrbia" 's two hours are as boring as watching the grass grow. Except that this grass also keeps making irritating, loud sounds. And when it's up, it's not fescue but crab-grass.
Written 28 April 1997