Since Austin director Richard Linklater won our hearts with 1991's Slacker — the movie equivalent of that smart-but-shiftless musician you worried might flake — the last 25 years have been like a marriage. At first, it was flawless. Linklater gave us Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, small slices of perfection that made us commit. There were some bumpy years. Bad News Bears and Fast Food Nation were rough. Sometimes, he seemed to prefer bumming around with the kiddies from School of Rock. But Before Midnight convinced us that Linklater had become one of the most emotionally mature filmmakers of his generation. And then with his new flick, the '80s-set Everybody Wants Some!!, he has a lame midlife crisis.
Everybody Wants Some!! is a "spiritual sequel" to Dazed and Confused that picks up four years after school got out. It's set at a Texas college in 1980, the weekend before fall semester starts, as incoming freshman Jake (Blake Jenner), here on a baseball scholarship, bonds with his new teammates in their off-campus house. Their crash pad is crowded with 11 dudes in skinny mustaches and high-waisted shorts, all pounding beers (and pounding their chests) to prove they're cool. All of them are strong. Most of them are handsome. One can slice baseballs in half with an ax. Others cruise the parking lots hooting at the new girls in town.
Finally, one of the girls, Beverly, spins around and speaks back. This is notable for three reasons. One, Beverly is played by upcoming talent Zoey Deutch, a whip-smart brunette. (Seriously, check her out in Vampire Academy. She's great.) Two, she ignores the gorillas to flirt with Jake. Three, she's the only woman in this movie who gets actual dialogue. She's not the only woman in the movie. There are plenty of babes in short shorts who pounce on our heroes after a few drinks, and sometimes they coo that they'd like to be taken to bed. But Deutch alone is given what passes for a character, even though it isn't much. She's a drama student who exists mainly to validate Jake in front of the dudes and expose him to weird parties with her artsy friends. In another movie, she'd be dismissed as a manic pixie fantasy. Here, she's the closest thing to a human female we've got, and we drink her in like a cold Coors Light on a 90-degree day.
Linklater wasn't always so dismissive of half of humankind. His first three films were crowded with fascinating women who tried to hawk Madonna's pap smear, created wild menstrual art, hazed each other with mustard, buddied around with their stoner guy friends, and bedazzled Ethan Hawke with their deep thoughts on religion. Everybody Wants Some!! feels like the immature movie he would have made before those, not 17 films after them.
His regression is ironic. Linklater's last film literally spent 12 years watching a boy become a young man. Yet even Boyhood hit a wrong note in its climax. As Mason (Ellar Coltrane) took drugs and sat with a babe on a desert cliff the day before college started, the music swooned with unearned triumph. This whole film was just building to Mason getting laid? Sure, that's a happy ending if you're watching Porky's or Revenge of the Nerds. But Linklater assumes it's a soulful ending. Maybe it is, if you're a man who wants to go back to 18. Boyhood's weakness is that Mason wasn't even the most interesting character in his own movie — the Academy Awards recognized that Patricia Arquette had the only performance worth caring about — but Linklater was so soaked in his puckish nostalgia that he didn't notice.
The good news for Everybody Wants Some!! is that 11 Masons are more interesting than one. If we have to go back — again — to Linklater's youth (like his characters, he was a 20-year-old baseball player in 1980), at least these dudes are funny. It's a hangout movie that you could watch in five-minute chunks without feeling pressured to sit down and pay attention. On its most basic level, it works because you really do want to kick it with his characters. And, in that narrow aspect, the film's 95 percent white, 95 percent male, 100 percent swagger arguably works in its favor. Their jock party is so insular that it makes us feel lucky to score an invitation, even if all we do is sit at their feet and giggle at their jokes.
Plus, with a cast this big, one of the guys is destined to be the next Matthew McConaughey. My money's on hippie Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) or charismatic Dale (J. Quinton Johnson). The gang has great chemistry, and if the movie leaned further into dopey comedy, I'd have half-forgiven its overwhelming pheromones. (C'mon, though: Even Revenge of the Nerds at least gave its female characters names — here, they're "Cute Coed #1," "Sorority Girl #2," and "Beverly's Roommate.") But Linklater can't resist posturing that there's deep emotional significance in these bros. There could have been, if he'd stepped back from his personal sentimentality and reshaped them to matter to everyone. And the best moments of Everybody Wants Some!! come when they step out of their — and Linklater's — comfort zone and explore beyond the athletic dorms: a country bar, a disco, a punk show. They put on different clothes as though they're curious about other lives. We like watching their world expand. If only Linklater hadn't stopped growing up.