By Justin Chang
After the dramatic one-two punch of Before Midnight and Boyhood, a master of the modern hangout movie achieves his most sustained comic bliss-out in years with Everybody Wants Some!! Billed quite accurately as a “spiritual sequel” to 1993’s Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater’s latest acutely funny, achingly perceptive retro-sociology lesson follows a team of ’80s college baseball players wasting a longish weekend together before the start of a new school year; many scenes of pot smoking, disco dancing, knuckle flicking, skirt chasing and other forms of competitive male sport (and some baseball here and there) predictably and hilariously ensue. Linklater indulges his characters’ antics with such wild, free-flowing affection that you might miss the thoughtful undertow of this delightful movie: Few filmmakers have so fully embraced the bittersweet joy of living in the moment — one that’s all the more glorious because it fades so soon.
Linklater loyalists will surely embrace the picture with all the restraint of mud-wrestling frat boys tearing open a keg, to borrow some imagery from his own playbook. Beyond that core audience, it’s less certain that everybody will want some of Paramount’s April 1 release, which features a star-free cast and looks to generate a warm but perhaps less ardent critical embrace than the filmmaker’s recent work. Still, as the now 55-year-old Linklater has noted in interviews, Everybody Wants Some!! represents a logical follow-up to not only Dazed and Confused, the quintessential movie about 1970s high-school life (and arguably high-school life period), but also his career-crowning Boyhood, which concluded its 12-year narrative shortly after its protagonist left home for college. (Fortunately, an affinity for baseball is just about all the new film has in common with Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake.)
It’s the fall of 1980 — as one might glean, roughly, from the sight of a vinyl stash in the backseat of a ’72 Oldsmobile coupe — when we first meet Jake (Blake Jenner, Glee), a promising pitcher starting his freshman year at a fictitious southeast Texas university. Moving into the run-down house reserved for the baseball team, Jake is greeted with an uneasy mix of camaraderie and hostility by his fellow players, some of whom — like the cocky McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin, sporting a Burt Reynolds mustache), a heavy hitter on the field and elsewhere — hardly bother to hide their scorn for freshmen in general and pitchers in particular.
But there are friendlier personalities in the mix, too, like Finn (a terrific Glen Powell), a paisley-shirted smooth talker and the group’s most adventurous pickup artist; all-around nice guy Dale (J. Quinton Johnson), whose standing as the team’s sole black player goes casually unremarked upon; Roper (Ryan Guzman), a sort of pack leader who takes Jake and some of the others out for a welcome-week joyride; and Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), the self-styled truth teller who pauses long enough between bong hits to urge everyone to reject the false self and “just be weird.” Most of Jake’s teammates need no such encouragement, like his stick-in-the-mud roommate, Billy Autry (Will Brittain), who would be the team’s designated outcast if not for Niles (Juston Street), who harshes everyone’s mellow with his belligerent, self-aggrandizing rants.
“I’m too philosophical for this game,” Niles fumes to himself after McReynolds humiliates him at batting practice. It’s characteristic of Linklater’s forgiving attitude, however, that this mild flare-up is resolved with a brief glimpse of Niles’ gentler side. It’s also typical of the filmmaker’s off-center approach that this extended sequence — the first and only baseball scene in the entire movie — doesn’t occur until around the 80-minute mark. Before and after that point, it’s enough of a blast just being in these dudes’ company that one would scarcely complain if they never made it onto the field at all. Certainly the camera makes no effort to nudge them in that direction, instead contentedly following them from their aimless daytime hangout sessions to their more purposeful nightly bar runs and party crashings.
Aided by typically smooth-yet-nimble work from editor Sandra Adair and d.p. Shane F. Kelly (shooting digitally in capacious, sun-dappled frames), Linklater once again demonstrates a command of the rhythms of youthful slackerdom that is itself anything but lazy. His method here is to cram the frame with so many vivid and recognizable types — the preening ladykiller, the high-functioning narcoleptic (aptly named Coma), the game-for-anything goofball, the overgrown dreamer — that the movie is half over before you realize it’s effectively thrown the very idea of types out the window. Certainly it’s exploded the popular notion that all jocks are alike, even if Linklater’s jocks are a touch more eloquent than most, complete with their own ever-expanding insult lexicon (“dips–tification” and “f–kwithery” being among the more drolly amusing examples).
But there’s a reason the movie swirls primarily around Jake, whom Jenner subtly and winningly plays as someone who refuses to be easily nailed down. He’s shy and awkward at first, yet we see him grow in confidence and popularity over the course of the movie. He’s as desperately horny as everyone on screen, but also sensitive enough to invest in something more than a one-night stand with Beverly (Zoey Deutch), a fine-arts major who invests the proceedings with delicate flickers of romantic feeling. Jake’s normal-guy good looks and solid athletic abilities make him both an emblem of promise and a warning against egomania in a movie that, for all its willingness to revel with its characters during the proverbial best years of their lives, harbors no illusions that any of them will live to see their pro-baseball dreams realized.
If that sounds heavy, it registers with the lightest possible touch in a nonstop romp whose pitch-perfect period detailing (courtesy of production designer Bruce Curtis) somehow feels both matter-of-fact and tongue-in-cheek. We learn a lot about who these guys are simply by watching them gyrate beneath a disco ball or compare “Space Invaders” strategies. (This being a Linklater movie, games of pinball and foosball are par for the course.) The waterbed, presumably enjoying the height of its popularity, figures prominently in an early throwaway gag. And costume designer Kari Perkins has fun squeezing Jake and his equally firm-bodied housemates into short shorts and tank tops, taking her cue from the hot Texas weather as well as the customs of a sweeter, less self-conscious era.
It may be going a bit far, as some early trailer reactions did, to compare the film’s muscle-baring retro aesthetics to those of a vintage porno movie: The acting here is too good, for starters, and Linklater’s storytelling is so loose and untethered that your average “and then the plumber arrives” setup looks over-plotted by comparison. This is the rare mainstream movie that, rather than treating its characters’ sex drives as an opportunity for crass cynicism or mindless vulgarity, wears its libido bravely, and thoughtfully, on its sleeve. The double-punctuated title is not only a reference to a classic song by Van Halen (one of many artists crowding the wall-to-wall soundtrack, including Blondie, the Knack and the Sugarhill Gang), but also an affirmation of the appetites — for sex, for fame, for victory, for sex — that course through these young men’s veins. And the movie suggests, not without self-awareness or criticism, that this innate lust for life, and the natural competition that it engenders, are essential components of the American male birthright.
Where are we all headed? Who are we now, and what might we yet become? Are we winners or losers, and is the game even worth playing? Linklater may pose these questions of identity within the conventions of a booze-and-testosterone-fueled stoner entertainment, but he’s on to something when he lingers on McReynolds’ rage after he loses a table-tennis match, or the confusion that ensues when Jake and his friends wander into a punk concert, a randy country-western bar or a theater-geek costume party, and wonder how much they can try to blend in without betraying their true selves. Everybody Wants Some!! itself may be an elaborate game of ’80s dress-up, but its artifice becomes its own form of authenticity, right down to its perfect final shot: For the better part of two hours it conjures a vision of the past so alive you can just about touch and smell it — and then it slips away, dreamlike, as though back to the decade whence it came.