subUrbia rehashes the clichés of youth.

Directed by Richard Linklater
Castle Rock Entertainment

If you held a contest for Most Annoying Cinematic Genre, one category almost guaranteed to place high is movies about the so-called Generation X. By definition, the characters are self-absorbed and passive, too serious about the television shows they loved as kindergartners and too casual about hygiene. They drift undramatically through life, and the screenwriter often feels compelled to invent a fake rite of passage (see, for example, Reality Bites–in which the Ethan Hawke character’s father suddenly dies, causing him to finally take stock of his life and realize he wants to date the Winona Ryder character and possibly shave) in order to whip the film into some semblance of a shape.

If Richard Linklater’s films have been an exception, it’s because he bravely stuck to shapelessness. For his first movie, Slacker (1991), he invented a new style of gentle chaos that perfectly matched the hyperarticulate-but-thwarted young people he took as his subject. He didn’t need anything so primitive as a plot or a hero. Working in his hometown of Austin, Texas, he made up characters, followed each one around for five minutes or so–long enough to hear a jaded girl announce that she was through with relationships or a nerdy boy expound on the hidden meaning of “Smurfs”–then moved on to someone else. Over time a group portrait accumulated, but Linklater never claimed to be giving us an authoritative take on an age in crisis as, say, Robert Altman might have done. If anything, Linklater did the opposite. By showing us so many unconnected lives, he conveyed a sense of wonder and possibility. He gave us the anxiety and pathos but also the randomness and exhilaration of youth.

Since Slacker, Linklater has seemed to inch toward more conventionally structured stories: Dazed and Confused (1993) focused on the contained fictional world of Austin High School, 1976; and Before Sunrise (1995) narrowed the scope to a pair of young tourists in Vienna. But both films hung onto the lighthearted mood of an improvised rondo. Now, in adapting Eric Bogosian’s play for subUrbia, Linklater has taken on straight drama for the first time. It’s an interesting match of writer and director: Bogosian is best known for his one-man shows, which had a kind of downtown-New York darkness, and he tends to be tightly wound where Linklater is open-ended and laid-back.

The subject–disaffected white-middle-class 20-year-olds–ought to be right up Linklater’s alley. The setting is the fictional town of Burnfield; in the play this was somewhere in Massachusetts, but Linklater shot the film in his usual home base of Austin. At the center is Jeff, a nondescript 20-year-old underachiever (played by the appropriately nondescript Giovanni Ribisi, a redhead who always looks like he just woke up). Jeff is smart and sensitive, but he also thinks that all successful people are hypocrites, so he lives at home and sleepwalks through community college and refuses to do anything with his life. All his talent and energy go into criticizing his loser companions, and they usually deserve his abuse. Sooze (Amie Carey), his girlfriend, is a sweet-but-pretentious aspiring artist with a pierced eyebrow, and her friend Bee-Bee (Dina Spybey) is a meekly pretty nurse’s assistant with a drinking problem. On the male side, there’s Tim (Nicky Katt), a sadistic Air Force dropout who gets off on taunting immigrants, and Buff (Steve Zahn), a full-blown drunkard who constantly humps and licks the air, pretending to have sex.

Bogosian’s legitimate but slightly shopworn idea is that suburbs are no longer the placid, pampered places they’re assumed to be. Suburban kids get the worst of both worlds: the violence and substance abuse and hopelessness of the inner city, and the claustrophobia and invisible gothic burdens of a small town. Most of the action occurs at night, outside a convenience store, in a concrete parking lot strewn with glass and cigarette butts and lit by a dim, soul-killing fluorescent haze. A soundtrack of Sonic Youth and Elastica thickens the atmosphere of ‘90s gloom.

On the surface, it’s all very up-to-date. The dialogue meanders in the now-orthodox ironic slacker style, interrupted by occasional set pieces such as Sooze’s deliberately ridiculous performance-art sketch, “Burger Manifesto No. 1.” The talk sounds a little canned–an adult’s foggy reconstruction of what it was like to hang out–but, for a while, Linklater is able to extract odd momentary glances and giggles from the actors to freshen it up. Then, slowly, the script undoes him. An old friend named Pony (Jayce Bartok), a budding alternative rock star, arrives in a limo for a night of showing off. Pony flirts with the equally shallow and ambitious Sooze, and Jeff begins to worry that she’ll betray him. Meanwhile Pony’s rich-bitch publicist, Erica (Parker Posey), hits on the sadistic Tim, causing us to fear violence around the corner. And Bee-Bee and Buff keep on guzzling booze.

A corny sense of foreboding mounts, and the real surprise of this film sinks in. Despite all the contemporary lingo, subUrbia belongs to the “slow-burning-fuse” school of writing that was popular 40 years ago and, if you take out the “fuck … fuck … fuck,” it has the earnest, overwrought feel of knockoff Tennessee Williams. There’s an ensemble cast, but everyone in it exists mainly to test Jeff’s character–to put in a wake-up call and see if he answers. Bogosian wants us to see in Jeff an explosive, underappreciated sensitivity, à la Marlon Brando. Instead, we see him as passive and selfish: He trails jealously after his girlfriend, yanking at her arm and asking, “What about us?”; he complains that the fast-food joint is “a mosh pit of consumerism,” but he eats there anyway. The greater incongruity is that the society Williams was attacking repressed conflict and pretended everything was perfect. The society Bogosian is attacking would never repress a thing. The kind of conflict he wants to build up is irrelevant in this kind of anarchy.

Jeff is a cliché of today filtered through the clichés of what is now a remote time–and Linklater, to his credit, has no idea how to handle him. subUrbia is a letdown, but at least it reminds us of how innovative Richard Linklater has been until now. Linklater was the first person to figure out that smart, marginal kids can’t take on the burden of their whole generation anymore–that slackers can’t be heroes. Then he took this discovery and turned it into something liberating, at times even beautiful. Here’s hoping that he returns to his very original path after this wrong turn and keeps on going.