Slack time

Clunky and dull, Before Sunrise is gifted Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater's first failure

When Before Sunrise isn't being Seinfeldish, 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 10 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 in the picture, he nods or chuckles appreciatively in response to lines his partner 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 the talk jumps from topic to topic without allowing the dialogue to flow. It's not artful, or realistic, or anything in between; it's 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. (Like stand-up comedy or talk radio blather, the missing segue between each monologue is, "And another thing...") The boldly artificial dialogue in Whit Stillman's movies Metropolitan and Barcelona, and in the films 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 in interviews; Linklater in interviews is funny, charming, and sometimes wise, but 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 feels like 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, and a story that ignores Vienna and its citizens almost completely and instead takes the lovers to the same generic places they could easily visit in America--a rock club, a bar, a carnival, and so on. (The foreign setting might also be part of the problem: like Robert Altman, whose European fashion epic Ready to Wear suffered from a similar lack of precision and detail, Linklater is a quintessentially American artist who seems lost without native soil under his feet.)

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, and an awkward instant when Jesse, enraptured by one of Celine's stories, reaches out to touch her hair and then wakes up and changes his mind.

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, it feels equally affecting--until you remember there's no reason to be touched by the memory of places where nothing interesting happened.

Before Sunrise. Columbia. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. Written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan. Directed by Richard Linklater. Opens January 27.

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