Richard Linklater has banked an incredible amount of goodwill, and it didn’t just start with the breakthrough, Oscar-nominated, thoroughly warranted success of 2015’s best movie, “Boyhood.” For decades now, Linklater has charted his own path, following through on the promise of his early cult hits “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused” to emerge as a genuinely important American filmmaker, one whose work usually mixes head and heart in perfect proportion.
Unfortunately, that track record only makes his latest, “Everybody Wants Some!!,” even more of a disappointment. “Dazed” (which this film is being marketed as the ‘spiritual sequel’ to) was a movie about youth by a director with wisdom beyond his years. “Boyhood” was a movie about youth from the perspective of a parent who hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be young. But “EWS!!” (the exclamation points are mandatory) has a thin, bland, laziness to it that makes it seem like the middle-aged Linklater has misplaced his mojo.
The movie takes place during the final 72 or so hours before classes start at Southern Texas University in the late summer of 1980. The fresh-faced cast is led by Blake Jenner, who plays a newly-arrived freshman pitcher moving into the baseball team’s coveted non-dormitory housing and getting a whirlwind tour of the college experience from the jock point of view. That tour includes, naturally, copious alcohol consumption, borderline-actionable forms of co-ed courtship, and the sorts of tribal dominance games and bonding rituals familiar to any primatologist.
The characters are almost all either indistinguishably bland or overly cartoonish. The closest thing to an exception is Willoughby (Wyatt Russell, Kurt’s son), the bearded uber-stoner who seems to be from a different movie—and might, in fact, be, it turns out. Then you’ve got the hyper-masculine alpha dog, the wannabe ladies’ man, the Southern hick, and so on—including the Token Black Guy. Zoey Deutch lends some low-key charm in the only substantial female role, a drama student Jenner crushes on but whose subplot kicks in too late to do much good.
The movie culminates with an all-night bash at the theater house, where our cocksure but clueless athletes take their first steps into a larger world of art and culture. Before that engaging finale, though, things are a slog. Let’s go to the disco, the honkey tonk, the punk rock club! Let’s razz each other mercilessly and often homophobically! Wow, that guy sure is wasted! College is great!!
From the opening shot, an overhead look at a beautiful muscle car prowling through a parking lot, “Everybody Wants Some!!” isn’t a ‘spiritual sequel’ to “Dazed & Confused”—it’s a pale imitation. The fact that Linklater is consciously lifting from himself certainly doesn’t excuse it. The way he puts his semi-autobiographical protagonist through humiliating hazing on the way to acceptance feels familiar, too. But the dialogue here is often painfully on-the-nose (“You just have to accept your chumpification and pass it on”) instead of allowing the situations and performers to show rather than tell.
You can’t do a nostalgia piece like this without putting a lot of thought into the soundtrack, and staples from “My Sharona” to the Van Halen title tune show up here alongside deeper cuts like Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner” and “Alternative Ulster” by Stiff Little Fingers. But none of the choices feel necessary or iconic.
In short, “Everybody Wants Some!!” lacks the lived-in humanity and wry perspective of Linklater’s best films, which is especially surprising considering it’s his most autobiographical project. (He played college baseball and made a great documentary about Texas Longhorns coach Augie Garrido, “Inning by Inning.”) It feels more like a lame 80’s teen sex comedy (“Porky’s” or maybe “The Last American Virgin”) injected with a smidgen of self-awareness than a product of the same fertile mind that created “Before Midnight” and “Waking Life.”
107 minutes; rated R; opens Thursday, April 7, at Regal Fox Tower. GRADE: C-