I've been rooting for Austin-based writer-director Richard Linklater ever since I saw his 1991 debut film, Slacker, for the second time. On first viewing, I dismissed it as a gifted bit of cinematic stunt work, way too dependent on its central anti-narrative device. The way it jumped gleefully from one character to another to another, never returning to any of them, was so brazenly unique that it seemed almost shallow and bratty -- a one-note gimmick for a one-note movie.
But on second viewing, I realized the film actually did have a structure. It wasn't a rebellion against old narrative conventions, it just used them in a refreshingly skewed way. There were themes and motifs, but they were deployed poetically, subtly. It was less a story than a collage of characters, ideas and moments. I've probably seen Slacker six times by now, and each time I love it more. It's a tiny film that's big enough to hold the whole world.
Linklater's second movie, the Bicentennial-themed teen comedy Dazed and Confused, was one of the best pictures of its type ever made -- a raucous celebration of youth that somehow managed to get deep inside a specific culture (suburban Texas high schoolers of the me decade) without mindlessly glamorizing it. The large cast and fetishistic period detail recalled American Graffiti and Car Wash, and the narrative was intriguingly old-fashioned, moving from petty triumph to trivial tragedy and back again, and taking its characters from something approximating cluelessness to something close to enlightenment.
Miraculously, Linklater's decision to encompass everything within a strict narrative structure (24 hours of partying after the final day of school) didn't suffocate him. The film was novelistically detailed, and like the best stories of J.D. Salinger and Philip Roth, acknowledged both the joys and miseries of being young and free in America. Scenes of astonishing heart and tenderness alternated with images of intense humiliation, even savagery. The film was tightly structured, but it never felt overdetermined; things happened because they were dramatically right, not simply because Linklater thought they might be interesting. The movie had a life pulse and a ring of truth.
In structure and tone, Dazed and Confused and Slacker were so different that the fact you could sense Linklater's personality shining through them both was amazing. They were obviously the products of a restless, perpetually fertile imagination -- someone who learned from past experiments, then applied the results to new ones. It was hard to imagine Linklater's next film being anything but a masterwork.
Unfortunately, Richard Linklater's third feature, Before Sunrise, is a depressing failure -- so misguided in concept and execution that it feels like the work of somebody who never made a film before, and hadn't watched very many, either.
Described by Linklater as "Slacker with two people," Before Sunrise takes place during a 14-hour period in and around Vienna, Austria, where, on a train, a handsome young American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets a beautiful French student named Celine (Julie Delpy) and falls instantly in love. He tells her that the next morning he's supposed to catch a plane for the States. Since he didn't have enough money for a hotel room, he planned simply to walk around Vienna all night -- and would she please consider joining him?
Celine eagerly agrees. The rest of the movie follows the two characters as they walk, talk, tease, flirt, bond and eventually become lovebirds. Linklater records the blossoming romance in a series of very long takes backed with pop songs or plaintive harpsichord music -- takes occasionally broken up by montages of different parts of Vienna -- and that's the movie.
On the surface, it sounds like perfect Linklater material -- a slice of nothing to be filled with everything. It's a concept that demands the same sort of firm yet invisible structure Slacker possessed -- a buried, cryptic structure of repeated scenes and lines, with stray flashes of indescribable poetry. But the filmmaker offers none of these things -- mostly, he just gives us one bit of shallow, cutesy babble after another.
Jesse and Celine's first exchange on the train set off my alarm bells. After seeing a middle-aged couple fight, Celine comments, "Have you ever heard that as couples get older, they lose their ability to hear each other?" Barely missing a beat, Jesse responds, "Yes -- it's nature's way of allowing couples to grow old together without killing each other." There might be some factual truth to this exchange, but dramatically it feels false -- dead words stuffed in the mouths of characters to make the viewers feel they're in the presence of a wistful, sensitive filmmaker.
When Before Sunrise isn't being Seinfeld-ish, it's struggling toward the prosaic. There's a ghastly bit early on when Jesse tells of watering the lawn as a young boy and seeing the ghost of his dead grandmother through the mist; the triteness of the image -- different versions of which can be found in the first ten pages of any high school poet's personal journal -- coupled with Ethan Hawke's weirdly unctuous, calculated delivery, conjures a vision of Linklater opening one of his notebooks, flipping to a section marked "Poignant monologues about mortality," circling a random entry and muttering, "That one will do." And all the stepped-on lines and awkward pauses are failed attempts to add "lifelike" touches. Instead of letting these moments emerge organically from the material, as he's done in the past, Linklater appears to be forcing them. Hawke, a terminally self-satisfied performer with a chocolate-milk mustache, a Michael J. Fox-by-way-of-Bruce Willis accent, and a nerdishly grating laugh that always seems to emerge just when his character is supposed to be acting his coolest, shows no improvisational flair whatsoever, which only compounds the problem. More than once, he nods or chuckles appreciatively in response to lines his co-star hasn't even delivered yet. Delpy has the same trouble, but at least you can chalk it up to the fact that English isn't her first language. What's Hawke's excuse?
There's a related lack of grace in the way their talk jumps from topic to topic without allowing the dialogue to flow. It's not artful, or realistic, or anything in between. The dialogue is as shapeless as unkneaded dough, and hearing Hawke and Delpy recite it is like reading an updated twentysomething version of Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The boldly artificial dialogue in Whit Stillman's movies Metropolitan and Barcelona, and in the movies of Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch (and Linklater, until now), expressed two sensibilities at once -- the characters' and the filmmakers'. This time, both characters sound too much like Linklater sounds in interviews, and while Linklater in interviews is funny, charming and sometimes wise, I certainly wouldn't call him dramatic.
Ultimately, the failure of Before Sunrise is a failure of vision. For all his railing against the brain-dead high-concept tendencies of big-budget Hollywood, Linklater's latest seems part of the problem. When it ended, I still wasn't convinced the filmmaker had gone beyond his initial pitch: "Slacker with two people." The built-in limitation of this phrase is that Slacker with two people would make an interesting 20-minute movie. To get beyond that, you have to offer more than a couple of pretty faces mouthing clunky lines.
There are a few moments that feel fresh and unforced -- a hilarious conversation between the couple and two German-speaking experimental theater performers, a lovely image of the two sweethearts nestled at the base of a fountain -- but they're not enough to redeem the picture. Even Linklater's boldest stroke is undone by the blandness that preceded it: a closing montage of every significant location the characters visited, now empty and nestled in a poignant past. The sequence directly invokes one of the most beloved romantic melodramas in movie history, Fellini's I Vitelloni, and for a few seconds, at least, Beyond Sunrise feels equally affecting -- until you remember there's no reason to be touched by the memory of places where nothing interesting happened.
Directed by Richard Linklater. With Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.