subUrbia

500fullRichard Linklater specializes in movies about young people who aren’t going anywhere — Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and his latest, subUrbia. Yet there’s more going on in Linklater’s films than in most overplotted, hyperactive Hollywood movies. Linklater is a great miniaturist: generally, he stakes out a 24-hour period, introduces his characters, and lets them talk, hang out, connect or not connect. Linklater’s work might be summed up by John Lennon’s line that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

subUrbia is Linklater’s first project that he didn’t also write. His collaborator here is the acidic playwright Eric Bogosian (Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll), adapting his own play about a group of college-age slackers who haunt a convenience-store parking lot. With Bogosian on board, the movie carries a more didactic message — and is a bit darker — than Linklater’s fans may be used to. The tension underneath the movie is the friction between Bogosian’s tense urban sensibility and Linklater’s relaxed, generous style. Bogosian forces Linklater to look at kids who won’t escape and grow up to be successful indie filmmakers.

The closest thing subUrbia has to a hero is Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), who lives in a pup tent in his parents’ garage and has vague dreams of being a writer. Jeff’s girlfriend Sooze (Amie Carey) has similarly vague ambitions; she’s the type who wants to say deep things with her performance art and then has to explain to her baffled audience exactly what she’s saying. Sooze wants to go to New York to be brilliant and controversial, while Jeff doesn’t plan on vacating the pup tent any time soon.

Jeff hangs out with two drunks he grew up with: Tim (Nicky Katt), who dropped out of the Air Force and is bitter and sarcastic about everything, and Buff (Steve Zahn), a more cheerful loser who spins around in happy oblivion. The stage (and it does sometimes feel like a stage, despite Linklater’s best efforts) is set for confrontation between these slackers and a local-boy-made-good named Pony (Jayce Bartok), who hit it big as a rock star and is now passing through town with a limo and a hip publicist (the ubiquitous Parker Posey).

Pony, whose physical resemblance to Linklater may or may not be a coincidence, at first comes off like a poseur. But the film doesn’t let the other characters off the hook that easily. As fatuous as Pony sounds (“I’m an observer of life”), at least he got out and did something, as opposed to hanging around and talking about how it’s pointless to do anything because, like, it’s all a big capitalist scam anyway, man.

subUrbia feels too mechanical at times, too symmetrical and ironic in a way that works better on stage. There’s a fake death and a possible real one, and Linklater seems to chafe a bit at the darkening tone; he’s in his comic element when Buff is whooping it up in the limo and swiping lawn leprechauns. Linklater is clearly at ease with Buff; he’s a drunken goofball and a liar, but in his own way he’s more honest than anyone else in the movie.

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