Friday, April 29, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!: College Ballplayers, Hazed and Amused

Blake Jenner, Glen Powell, Temple Baker, and Tyler Hoechlin in Richard Linklater's "Everybody Wants Some!!"
Ah, college. Remember your freshman year, when all you did was guzzle beer, smoke pot, and bang hot girls? Sadly, neither do I. But whether Everybody Wants Some!!—the fun, effortless, secretly sweet new film from cinema's slacker emeritus, Richard Linklater—is a clandestine autobiography of its director's misspent youth or a fantasy of testosterone-laced revelry, it doesn't much matter. This movie is such a relaxed pleasure, jocks and nerds alike will find its embrace to be irresistible. It's wreathed in a halcyon glow, but it never dreams of suggesting that the past was better. That would constitute a judgment, and there's none of that here.

There isn't all that of much of anything, unless you count warmth, intelligence, and continuous humor. This absence of substance—not to be confused with illicit substances, which flow freely—comes as no surprise. Linklater has made a career out of what might be called epic minimalism, compressing grand, sweeping stories into spare, economical packages. Three years ago, he delivered Before Midnight, the concluding chapter of a trilogy that somehow traced the entire trajectory of a single (and singular) relationship by way of three seemingly mundane single-day episodes. Then he gave us Boyhood, the outrageously ambitious account of a child's maturation, filmed in discrete stages over the span of a dozen years. One of the remarkable things about Boyhood was that it was defiantly unremarkable, eschewing typical story beats in favor of quiet character moments and thoughtful exploration.

In logistical terms, Everybody Wants Some!! appears to be Boyhood's modest opposite; where Linklater's previous movie spanned 12 years, this one takes place over just 3 days. But they share Linklater's finely grained sense of observational detail. A dilettante and college dropout—his first studio film was called Slacker—he is a master of capturing the beautiful aimlessness of youth. His movies invariably involve partying, but the merriment on display is less debauched than serene, a gentle celebration of the prospect of having your whole life stretched out in front of you. That was the animating ethos behind Dazed and Confused, his 1993 cult hit that sleepily and affectionately chronicled the last day of high school in 1976. It similarly informs Everybody Wants Some (you will forgive me for omitting the exclamation points going forward), which Linklater has described as a "spiritual sequel" to Dazed and Confused, and which depicts the blissful three-day period prior to the start of classes at the fictitious Southeast Texas University in August 1980.

"Nice to meet you. Now piss off."
Our protagonist is Jake (Blake Jenner), first seen cruising through the hot Texas streets in a cobalt muscle car as "My Sharona" blares from his stereo. (The soundtrack here is predictably stocked with prime cuts from the era, including songs by Blondie, The Cars, and Van Halen, whose slab of hard rock gives the film its title.) He's an incoming freshman on a baseball scholarship, which means he gets to live off-campus with the rest of his team in a pair of dilapidated houses that appear to be held together with spit and chewing gum. Jake walks with a strut—he's a pitcher, after all—but he's quickly cut down to size by his teammates, who relish tormenting the rookies. Over the course of this lazy and lusty weekend, Jake will attempt to win his betters' respect while learning the bizarre social codes that these louche athletes obey like Scripture.

If that makes Everybody Wants Some sound like a story of bitter conflict and ultimate triumph, remember that this is a Richard Linklater movie—he's practically allergic to conflict. Instead, he just drops you into Jake's shoes as he navigates this quasi-fraternity, with all its perks and landmines.

This is not without its challenges, for you as well as for Jake. If Everybody Wants Some has a flaw, it's the same one that plagued Dazed and Confused: There are just too many damn characters, and many of them border on indistinguishable. Half the cast appears to be competing in a Billy Crudup lookalike contest, and they are more identifiable by their facial hair than their personality. (Most of them also look to be well over college-age.) Even as they gain definition over time, many of the supporting players can be reduced to generic labels: the maniacal competitor (Tyler Hoechlin); the ladies' man (Ryan Guzman); the redneck (Will Brittain); the stoner (Wyatt Russell). Jake himself isn't exempt from this phenomenon—as played by Jenner, our hero is amiable, anodyne, and rather bland, more of a gateway into this strange new world than a participant in it.

Alright, alright, alright
Thankfully, Jake quickly befriends two teammates who show him the ropes and, in the process, stand out from the pack. The first is Dale (J. Quinton Johnson), an acutely smart infielder who seems to possess a bone-deep, anthropological understanding of college life and all its peculiarities. And the second is Finnegan (Glen Powell), a smooth-talking, mustachioed lothario who is the obvious cinematic heir to Wooderson, the half-sleazy, half-charming drawler whom Matthew McConaughey immortalized in Dazed and Confused. Effortlessly wittier than everyone in the room, Finnegan is a social chameleon, constantly adapting to new environments and teaching Jake to do the same. Dazed and Confused is often credited with launching the careers of a number of actors, including McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg, Milla Jovovich, and Parker Posey; with any luck, Everybody Wants Some will do the same for Powell.

Finnegan is easily the movie's best character, but Everybody Wants Some isn't about specific people as much as it's about those people sharing an experience. With one exception—a bigheaded pro prospect (Juston Street), whose behavior ranges from infantile to certifiable—all of the ballplayers are basically nice guys, and Linklater deftly articulates the spirit of camaraderie that binds them together. Their interactions comprise a medley of jokes, insults, and childish challenges; as Jake observes, virtually every activity transforms into a fierce competition, from ping-pong to pinball to an idiotic game that involves two men repeatedly slapping each other's knuckles. But despite all the macho swagger—the swearing and the howling and the roughhousing—Linklater imbues everything with a curious tenderness, giving the movie's bawdy proceedings a delicate, nostalgic tint. Scenes of these clowns just hanging out and kidding around develop a quixotic poignancy, such as in a marvelous early sequence in which five of them take turns lip-synching to the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight".

Zoey Deutch, proving that women actually do exist and appear in this movie
Of course, while they may be jesters, they are also baseball players, and that isn't a random detail. Linklater loves baseball; he played the sport in college at Sam Houston State before dropping out, and he directed the much-reviled Bad News Bears remake. I'm a fan of America's pastime as well, but I'm not sure that Everybody Wants Some needed an extended segment in which the characters (many now played by body doubles) take batting practice, with virtually no sense of stakes. Then again, that lack of urgency is arguably in keeping with the movie's commitment to leisureliness as a guiding principle. These guys are in no hurry, which may explain why, despite their constant chatter about sex and their exaggerated horniness, they don't appear to be especially interested in actual relationships. (That's the one area where Jake separates himself, pursuing a sweet romance with Beverly, played by an enormously appealing Zoey Deutch.) They're too busy having fun to fall in love.

"I get older, they stay the same age," Wooderson famously said in Dazed and Confused. He was referring to high school girls, but the sentiment is largely true when applied to Linklater and his characters. He's been making features for a quarter-century, but he's still fascinated by young people and their preternatural ability to have a blast while doing nothing in particular. Discrepancies between high school and college aside, Everybody Wants Some hardly represents new territory for Linklater, but it does reaffirm just how enjoyable it can be to hang out with his loafers for a few hours, free from the worries and tribulations of adult life. At one point, Jake and three teammates attempt to engage in telepathy, trying to discern what someone is thinking about without speaking. It's drug-fueled nonsense, but then, maybe not. I've never met Linklater, but he must have picked up on my vibes from afar, because he keeps giving me exactly what I want.

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