Don't waste your life

With subUrbia, the director of Slacker has finally become one

The new Richard Linklater film, subUrbia, adapted by Eric Bogosian from his 1994 play, opens with a long, unbroken tracking shot through a ticky-tacky Texas suburb, backed on the soundtrack by Gene Pitney wailing "Town Without Pity." This logy, Jim Jarmusch-y opening hints at even greater anomie to come--and boy, does it come. SubUrbia is about the soullessness of America, junior division; the suburb on display stands in for all the anonymous strip-malled nabes where middle-class kids, bereft of ideals, booze up and twiddle their alienation.

It's a shockingly banal view both of kids and of the suburbs, but chronicling banality is Linklater's stock-in-trade. What's weird about subUrbia is that Linklater's zoned-out technique is wedded to Bogosian's in-your-face power-rant oratory. The result is like local anesthesia--you can see the incisions, but you can't feel them.

Bogosian is a cult fave for his one-man shows in which he comes on like the dark spawn of Lenny Bruce--he's all vehemence and attitude--and some people take his doomsday-machine routine very seriously. Like Spalding Gray, Bogosian has achieved funky prophet status; he's supposed to sear our complacencies. I've never bought into Bogosian's rant, maybe because I don't imagine he buys it either. He buys whatever is "powerful."

SubUrbia is all rant, but who can believe it? It looks like it was made by people who never met any suburban street kids. For all its supposed hipness, the film is like an old fogy's guide to American youth. Look! They've got tattoos! They get drunk and throw up! They screw! My guess is that very soon subUrbia is going to look as dated as all those '50s problem-dramas about tough-tender juvenile delinquents and their square elders.

Actually, it looks dated now. In large part, that's because Bogosian has plucked his kids from the same playbook as those '50s problem-dramas. Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi) is the sensitive 20-year-old who's living at home, working part-time, and taking a few community-college classes. He's much too smart to be hanging around a convenience store night after night getting drunk with his buddies--then again, he's alienated. He actually says it: "I'm alienated." Later on, just in case we were at the concession stand, he recaps: "Idealism is middle-class bullshit."

Tim (Nicky Katt), Jeff's best buddy, is the James Dean/Vic Morrow character--a former high school star quarterback and Air Force dropout who goes around in sleeveless T-shirts to show off his tattoos. Tim is also too smart to be getting snockered every night. Not to be outdone in the alienation department, he goes Jeff one better and declares, "Without suffering, there is no wisdom." Du-u-u-ude.

There's also Buff (Steve Zahn), who works at a pizza joint and has green-tinged hair and guzzles a lot and generally makes a fat-assed nuisance of himself. Buff is the only cast member who upchucks for us--quite a distinction, considering the communal intake.

Sooze (Amie Carey), Jeff's girlfriend, wants to go to New York to study at the School for Visual Arts. She has punkish hair and an earring in her eyebrow and performs a radical-feminist piece of performance art early on that looks really terrible, except maybe that means it's supposed to be really good. Her best friend, Bee-Bee (Dina Spybey), is a mum chicklette and AA grad who works as a nurse's aide and enjoys caring for people because her parents don't care about her.

They are all hanging out, as usual, in the parking lot of an all-night convenience store run by a beleaguered Pakistani couple (Ajay Naidu and Samia Shoaib) who periodically try to run them off. They are awaiting the arrival of "Pony" (Jayce Bartok), a high school buddy turned MTV rock star. When his stretch limo slides into view, it's time to brace yourself for some lessons in class consciousness.

Pony is an OK guy, but he lives in L.A. so, ergo, he's a sellout. He has lost touch with the loaminess of Suburbia. "You guys are real," he tells his buddies, but they don't register the compliment. Jeff figures (correctly) that his upwardly mobile girlfriend is making moves on Pony; Tim agrees--"Women are all whores." Buff is all too willing to sell his soulless soul for a ride in Pony's stretch limo. How unreal can you get?

The only character in the movie for whom one has any sustained sympathy is the limo driver (Bill Wise). He has to listen straight-faced to all this babble and mop up the chunks.

Bogosian has stuck fairly close to his own play, but--did I hear somebody say "sellout"?--he has eliminated Tim's strain of anti-Semitism and, Paki-bashing aside, toned down his racism. Now it's more obvious than ever that Tim and everybody else are really puttytats underneath all the gruff and bluff. In his own aren't-I-cool? way, Bogosian is just as Hollywood as any schlockmeister.

Still, Bogosian's way may work for audiences who want to indulge the old sentimentalities without appearing old-fashioned. SubUrbia is at once new-style and old-style. To make us comfy, Bogosian also pulls a few moves from the sitcom playbook. Parts of subUrbia play like Happy Days plus heavy angst. He aims for the archetypal by focusing, American Graffiti-style, on a single night in his kids' lives. But there isn't enough substance to these lives to warrant all the hoo-hah. How can there be when everybody is busy mouthing trash-talk platitudes? Bogosian is still working a one-man show here--he's just divided up his usual rap among his players.

The women in subUrbia get the short end. Bee-Bee hugs her cassette player as if it were a Teddy bear; Sooze grates and goes on her Pony ride. Erica (Parker Posey), Pony's record-company publicist, falls for Tim because she's a Bel-Air princess prowling for rough stuff. As obnoxious as the guys in subUrbia are, they're still redeemable; but no such redemption exists for the women. They're too shallow even for anomie. They function in the movie as agents of the guys' anomie.

Linklater has been one of the most remarkable of the new generation of directors. The linked hang-loose stories in Slacker had an eerie resonance. The film captured a new mood--a slacker's mood: flip, menacing, dissociated. Enjoyable but less original was Dazed and Confused, but Before Sunrise, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, had a hushed, tentative sweetness. SubUrbia is wrong for Linklater not only because it repeats subject matter but because his floating-on-the-cusp-of-mood style does nothing to blockade Bogosian's bull. Linklater in his best films can stand back from a scene and just let it play out, and sometimes you feel that he's giving you more than the directors who are always ramming your face in the action. There is a principled modesty in his films that is very becoming.

In subUrbia, however, that modesty comes across as a kind of creative abdication. There's something unseemly--unthinking--about the way Linklater window-dresses Bogosian's corruptness. If he doesn't learn to cast a colder eye and pick up a few rude tricks, Linklater could end up Hollywood's first slacker hack.

subUrbia.
Steve Zahn, Amie Carey, Nicky Katt, Giovanni Ribisi. Written by Eric Bogosian. Directed by Richard Linklater. Opens March 7.

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