Slack time

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

All movie fans have a filmmaker they latch onto, take to heart, and enthusiastically root for. Their triumphs make you euphoric and their failures make you surly and sad, and once you're plugged into the thrill of following their careers, the emergence of each new work is simultaneously thrilling and unsettling, like the reappearance of a dear friend you haven't seen in a while.

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 stuntwork, way too dependent on its central antinarrative 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. In that sense, it reminded me of an important novel from a few years back, Don DeLillo's 1986 masterpiece White Noise--a similarly rambling, funny, scary, musical essay on modern urban life, which also concerned itself with self-involved, overeducated white folks living in nameless fear of a society they believed was secretly plotting to destroy them. 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.

Yet Linklater's decision to encompass everything within a strict narrative structure (24 hours of partying after the final day of school) miraculously didn't suffocate him. The film was novelistically detailed, and like the best stories of J.D. Salinger and Philip Roth, it acknowledged both the joys and miseries of being young and free in America. 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 still sense Linklater's personality shining through both of them 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 both concept and execution that it feels like the work of somebody who never made a film before and hadn't watched very many, either.

Repeatedly described by Linklater as "Slacker with two people," it takes place during a 14-hour period in and around Vienna, Austria, where a handsome young American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets a beautiful French student, Celine (Julie Delpy), on a train and falls instantly in love. He tells her that in 14 hours he's supposed to catch a train that will take him to the airport, where he'll board 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 in Vienna as they walk, talk, tease, flirt, bond, and eventually become lovebirds. Linklater records the blossoming romance in a series of very long takes, occasionally broken up by montages of different parts of the city backed with pop songs or plaintive harpsichord music. 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 script, cowritten with Kim Krizan, offers none of these things--mostly, it 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 viewer feel they're in the presence of a wistful, sensitive filmmaker.

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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