To get an appreciation of Richard Linklater's new movie Everybody Wants Some!, it is helpful to go back. Not all the way back to 1980, when this character-driven comedy takes place. Nor back to 1993, when Linklater's cult classic Dazed and Confused, to which the new movie has been called a spiritual, if not direct sequel, opened.
No, you only have to go back to the cusp of the new millennium, 1999-2000, when another comic auteur was making his first big splash on television. That was the era in which Judd Apatow, under the initial direction of Paul Feig, was developing the twin sitcoms Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. The former was about two groups of high schoolers, senior freaks and freshman geeks. It helped launch the careers of James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, among others. It is one of the best sitcoms American television has ever produced.
It only ran one season, and the next year, Apatow returned with Undeclared, something of a sequel which took Rogen, along with new cast members Charlie Hunnam and Jay Baruchel off to college. It was good, better than most of what was on TV at the time. But it wasn't Freaks and Geeks.
In the same manner, Everybody Wants Some! has an awful lot of good things going for it. But it is no Dazed and Confused.
The primary reason is not very hard to see, but I'm going to mention all the good stuff first, because there is a lot of good stuff. Everybody Wants Some! covers the three days leading up to the beginning of a new college year, as seen through the eyes of an incoming freshman baseball player. That character, Jake, played by the supremely good-looking Blake Jenner, arrives with his milk crate of LPs and checks in to one of two baseball houses which combine a couple of new freshmen with the more experienced upperclassmen. In this manner, the set-up echoes Dazed and Confused, which followed the stories of both graduating middle schoolers and rising high school seniors as they navigate various rituals on the final day of school.
The characters we meet, almost all of whom are baseball players, are the best thing the movie has going for it. That is not surprising, considering Linklater's affinity for characters over plot. Almost all of them get moments. Even the fairly dense Plummer, the freshman catcher, gets a poignant moment when he wonders what it is like for all the other students on campus who are there to simply go to classes, and who don't have a purpose like playing baseball.
The best lines go to Finnegan (Glen Powell) the seemingly wise senior who takes young Jake under his wing and offers plenty of advice. Finnegan is a marvelous creation, a smart blowhard who is given to moments of supreme clarity. At one point he encourages Jake not to overthink things. When Jake points out that Finnegan is always overthinking things, Finnegan answers with "I don't think. I just talk a lot." That may end up being the best line of dialogue this year. Later, after his teammates have sabotaged his attempts to pick up a co-ed at a party Finnegan tells them - and I am paraphrasing here because I don't remember the exact wording - "when you're at the baseball house, all you do is talking about pussy. Now, when we're out with some actual women, all you do is talk about baseball. Think about that."
It is the insertion of moments like that which raise Everybody Wants Some! above the standard young man sex comedy. And what raises it even farther above the norm is the presence of minor characters like the pitchers Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) and Jay (Justin Street). Willoughby is a stoned philosopher who talks about the pressure you face on the mound but cannot face the pressure of growing into adulthood. And Jay is a hyper-strung borderline psycho who needs to be the toughest guy on the field or in the bar. These are both funny characters, but they are also tragically sad, and in that balance you find the best Linklater has to offer. He understands as well as anyone the sadness present in joy and the joy that peeks up through sadness. What was Boyhood if not a celebration of the complex relationship between the excitement and terror of growing up?
The problems with Everybody Wants Some! are twofold. Plot has never been Linklater's biggest concern and here, the plot does begin to drag by the time we hit the 3rd fairly redundant party that the baseball boys attend during the weekend. In Dazed and Confused, there was a story spine built around twin goals of its two main characters. The older Pink had to decide whether or not to sign a pledge to play football, and the younger Mitch had to desperately avoid the hazing that the upperclassmen were planning to inflict. These were small things that did not take up a great deal of screen time, but which gave the story a direction. Without that, Everybody Wants Some! does tend to meander.
More importantly, Mitch in Dazed and Confused was a very wise and resourceful kid who nonetheless was able to express the sense of wonder and dread at moving up a rung on the social ladder. The biggest problem with the new movie is that Jake does not offer the same sense of dread and wonder. Jake, with his movie star looks, quick wit, and obvious intelligence, is too evolved from the moment he walks onto campus. There is no fear, no awkwardness, no stupidity. Those things actually come from the other freshmen but at least some of it should come from Jake. Jake really has no big hurdle to clear, which robs the movie of a sense of grandeur. In that, it is minor Linklater.
Which is still better than most. After all, Undeclared is still solid television. It just isn't Freaks and Geeks.