As a midway celebration of one of American independent cinema’s most vital careers, “21 Years: Richard Linklater” makes for a disappointingly hollow hagiography: gushy, superficial and strangely overdue — arriving significantly later than its title prescribes. This year, “Boyhood” sparked a serious reappraisal of Linklater’s oeuvre by film lovers everywhere (Brit film journal Little White Lies dedicated an issue to the helmer’s career, while Variety’s own critics ranked his 17 features to date), but this VOD-bound overview adds little to the conversation, beyond fresh endorsements from the likes of Ethan Hawke, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, embellished by amusing animated segments.
Given helmer Michael Dunaway and co-director Tara Wood’s evident affection for their subject’s contributions to cinema, it’s weird that they didn’t leverage their project as an excuse to gain access to the Austin-based auteur. Instead, the pair travel far and wide to interview his collaborators, focusing on the biggest names (including a dazed-looking Zac Efron and a visibly confused Keanu Reeves, whose “A Scanner Darkly” experience doesn’t appear to have left much of an impression), along with other directors he’s inspired: Kevin Smith, Jason Reitman, Mark and Jay Duplass.
Though their respect runs deep, Linklater’s many admirers insist on referring to him simply as “Rick,” and by the end of the film, auds will likely have adopted the more familiar sobriquet as well. Hawke likens the helmer to a baseball coach (Linklater once dreamed of going pro and is now prepping a comedy set in the world of college baseball), while the others repeatedly describe him as “sneaky” — which might sound pejorative, though they mean it with affection.
In what ultimately feels like something intended to screen at the man’s memorial service, Linklater comes across as a wise but unpretentious storyteller whose affection for losers and misfits has send him wandering off the beaten path, trying his hand at different genres and styles, while remaining true to his interest in what makes people tick. Some directors are experts at their own publicity (as one of his first moves in the biz, Martin Scorsese shrewdly hired a personal praiser), but Linklater has preferred to fly below the radar, making pics that appear deceptively minor, but collectively pack more substance than the vast majority of American movies.
Who else would dare extend the perambulatory romantic philosophy of “Before Sunrise” across 18 years and two sequels; or construct a feature in which the attention passes like a baton from one character to another, a la “Slacker”; or embrace an untried form of rotoscope animation in order to deliver a lucid-dream head trip, as he did with “Waking Life”? The director has even agreed to work with Hollywood on occasion, making kids’ movies — “School of Rock” and “The Bad News Bears” — that preach the virtues of nonconformity.
These observations are present but never well articulated in “21 Years,” the very title of which remains something of an enigma (apart from the fact that it places the film near the top of most VOD listings). The press materials begin, “It’s been said that the first 21 years defines the career of an artist,” but that hardly satisfies, since the film totally ignores Linklater’s 1988 directorial debut, “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books,” and carries on well past the 21-year mark, including several references to “The 12-Year Project,” aka “Boyhood” — the pic that cemented his place in film history.
If the helmers had really set out to find a unifying preoccupation in Linklater’s oeuvre, it wouldn’t take long for them to seize on his fascination with time: both the immediacy of the moment, as in his real-time experiment “Tape” (while many of the others take place within the span of a single day), and the way its passage transforms our experience, most evident in “Boyhood” and the “Before” trilogy.
But Dunaway and Wood don’t seem all that interested in how Linklater himself has changed over his quarter-century career. Apart from the opening scene of “Slacker,” in which the young director pontificates from the back seat of a taxi cab, we see no photos or footage of Linklater, no visits to the sites of his own East Texas boyhood (which inspired “Bernie”) or his more recent Austin haunts.
Instead, cute animated segments serve to illustrate the interviews, which favor stars, even when they have nothing to say: Billy Bob Thornton is a bust, while more meaningful insights from longtime producers Anne Walker-McBay and John Sloss are nowhere to be found. Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black is a helpful addition, having observed Linklater’s unique brand of laid-back diligence since his “Slacker” days. But where is Rick? And who decided a superficial tour through his filmography, presented bewilderingly out of order, would illuminate an artist whose own work has been so committed to going deep?