Writer-director teamings seldom mesh as smoothly or suggest so many creative affinities as does the one at the heart of “subUrbia,” a brooding, incisive comedy that blends the talents of helmer Richard Linklater and playwright Eric Bogosian. The collaboration seems almost preordained, as both artists share a concern with youth’s discontent and middle-class anomie, a passion for language and pop culture detritus, and intelligent, discursive comic sensibilities.
While a bit overlong and not entirely freed from its theatrical chrysalis, pic’s strong work by Bogosian, Linklater and a top-notch ensemble of young actors should make it a solid arthouse performer. Scripted by Bogosian from his play, “subUrbia” fits Linklater naturally with its acidly amusing account of 20-year-old losers acting out their miseries on the night one of their high school chums returns to town as a neophyte rock star.
If “subUrbia” doesn’t seem likely to become a big mainstream crossover, that’s largely because its point of view, rather than reflecting the “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” type of wackiness that probably comprises many 20-year-olds’ views of themselves, feels older, more cerebral and ruminative. In other words, pic’s most likely audience is among those already attuned to Bogosian and Linklater. For such viewers, one interesting facet will be how congruent the first Linklater film not to be written by him is with his other work. In fact, “subUrbia” almost could be the lost link between “Dazed and Confused’s” end-of-high-school melancholy and the post-everything existentialism of “Slacker,” with a hint of “Before Sunrise’s” subdued romanticism thrown in for good measure.
After a nifty opening-credits sequence in which whizzing views of the stereotypical strip malls, franchise eateries and tract homes of mythical burg Burnfield are set to Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity,” pic quickly leaves broad-stroke satire to focus in on three dyspeptic pals. Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), though he’s recently dropped out of college, is obviously the thinker in the bunch, though a dark sheen of nihilism covers his idealistic core.
Spinning his wheels in the rut between adolescence and adulthood, he’s got apt company in Buff (Steve Zahn), a hedonistic goofball who works in a pizza joint, and Tim (Nicky Katt), a surly, tattooed hothead who got an Air Force discharge by slicing off one of his fingertips. The three rendezvous around nightfall in the parking lot of a 24-hour convenience store, where much of the pic’s remainder transpires. They’re soon joined by Jeff’s punkette g.f., Sooze (Amie Carey), and her friend Bee-Bee (Dina Spybey), a nurse’s aide who’s recently emerged from rehab. Sooze demonstrates a new performance art piece titled “Burger Manifesto Part One,” which is mainly an obscene, p.c. denunciation of men, then says she plans to move to New York to attend art school. Jeff is none too happy to hear that, but it’s easy to sense that his disdain is really just veiled envy: Sooze at least has a plan, something he can’t quite manage.
While the milieu suggests an infinity of idleness, the gang on this evening actually has a semblance of purpose. They’re awaiting the appearance of a former schoolmate who formed a band and now seems on the cusp of success. Known as Pony (Jayce Bartok), he keeps this from turning into the MTV production of “Waiting for Godot” by showing up as promised, ferried in a boat-size limo and accompanied by a sleek L.A. publicist, Erica (Parker Posey). Pony seems like a likable kid who’s just started to hit paydirt, but even that modest share of good fortune is enough to catalyze the differences among his friends. Jeff’s jealousy quickly turns into hostility, which redoubles when it becomes obvious that Pony is ready to help Sooze and even Buff, the would-be director of videos, leave town and pursue their visions. Bee-Bee, meanwhile, seems in danger of slipping off the detox wagon, and Tim keeps getting drunker and meaner till it simply becomes a question of whether he’ll vent his pent-up rage on Erica, who has eyes for him, or on the convenience store’s industrious young Pakistani owner (Ajay Naidu), who has nothing but scorn for the slackers who mock his hard work.
Pic’s fascinations owe in large part to Bogosian’s skill at drawing characters that are American archetypes yet quirkily distinct and idiomatic. His dialogue is rich and flavorful, avid at capturing the pungent nuances of slang and the precise verbal textures of a world that seems like a giant invitation to “smoke a doob and hang out.” His writing also strikes a fine balance in showing both the hopelessness and the hopes of that world, and in conveying that damaged, culturally derelict humanity is still humanity. Linklater approaches this material respectfully, to mostly good effect. His direction is fluid and almost classical in avoiding any kind of gimmickry in order to keep the emphasis on the characters, the words and the actors.
Pic’s main drawback, though, is that its reliance on long scenes of dialogue in restricted settings means it never shakes the feeling of staginess; Linklater and Bogosian could have added a certain amount of welcome dynamism simply by shortening the script early on. In movies, as in life, two hours is a long time to spend at a convenience store.
Pic’s actors are its other strong suit. All are very good, but particularly memorable moments come from Zahn, whose loopy Buff has as much fine shading as unkempt energy; and Carey, who finds both the uncertainty and the strength in Sooze, the most positive of these stranded kids.
Scored with a generous selection of rock and pop songs, pic has sharp lensing by Lee Daniel and other tech credits of similar polish.