Saturday, December 17, 2011

Day 17: Dazed and Confused

"Say man, you got a joint?"
"What? No, not on me man."
"It'd be a lot cooler if you did."

I'm still not entirely sure why I chose Dazed and Confused to review. More than likely because it's a challenging movie to review. It's not a great movie, but it's one that I love a lot. It's one of those movies that I watched so much in high school and college on VHS but have barely revisited in the ensuing decade even though I purchased Criterion's deluxe edition of it five years ago. It's like an old friend that you talk to once in a while and think about occasionally, but don't really spend any time with. But like an old friend, the second it starts, you get sucked in and find yourself wondering why you don't spend more time together.

Set in a small town in Texas on the last day of school in 1976, Dazed and Confused is nostalgic without being wistful, and that's why it's such an effective movie. It's the 70's in miniature. Rather than focusing on a long stretch of time, it focuses on one day and enables us to get to know and care about multiple characters without getting bogged down in exposition or the kind of character development that can sink a movie like this. A lot of that has to do with writer/director Richard Linklater choosing characters that are archetypes and so familiar to anyone who's been in high school that you can easily drop into the story and know immediately who everyone is. There's the jocks, the nerds, the bitchy girls, the nice girls, the stoners, the assholes, and they're all fully inhabited characters.

Jason London (not to be mistaken for his twin brother from Mallrats and getting kidnapped fame) plays Randall "Pink" Floyd, the (I would assume) Linklater surrogate and main protagonist. He's a graduating junior and soon-to-be quarterback of the football team and he's wrestling with having to sign a pledge from his coach that says he won't engage in any drinking, drugs or illegal activity over the summer. This is the main conflict of the movie and pops back in to view from time to time to provide a sense of conflict, but it's never overbearing and certainly never feels like a plot device.

The plot essentially involves a big end of the year blow-out party getting cancelled and a bunch of small-town kids scrambling to find something to do instead. Mostly they drive around and talk a lot, but they all end up at a big beer bash at a park called "The Moon Tower." There's also a through-line involving a freshman hazing ritual that carries some of the characters forward, but it feels a bit more superfluous than Pink's dilemma.

The cast is uniformly good with a few standouts. Rory Cochrane plays Slater, the school's biggest stoner who maintains friendships across several social groups. He is perfect and you almost wonder why he never became more famous as a result of his performance here. Ben Affleck is also great as O'Bannion, a senior who failed seemingly just so he could participate in the hazing again. He is a pure asshole and everyone went to school with a guy just like this, and Affleck's performance is particularly good in retrospect because he played characters like this to much lesser effect in the future, and this is clearly before he tired to playing this kind of character.

Parker Posey is great as always playing a total bitch named Darla who enjoys hazing the incoming freshman girls as much as O'Bannion does the boys. Again, this is an actress with tons of talent and charisma who has seemingly always been as good as she is now.

The true shining star of the movie however is Matthew McConaughey as Wooderson, a townie with an affection for high school girls. Here again is an actor that's become incredibly famous but has clearly always had a talent for creating fully formed characters. Even though he's a bit of a creep, he never comes off that way and has a very endearing and accepting quality to him that makes him the most fully realized character in the entire movie. He's got most of the best lines, he looks the part, sounds the part and is the true breakout here like Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Harrison Ford in American Graffiti, two actors in two films that this one is clearly indebted to.

The soundtrack, costume design, art direction and editing are also incredibly good for such a low budget affair (I understand the soundtrack accounted for roughly a third of the movie's total budget). If I have one complaint, it's a small one and it's Adam Goldberg's character Mike. I don't fault the actor as I think he's doing the best he can with the most overly "written" character in the movie. He speaks in quips and seems the least like a real person. He's one of a trio of brainy kids along with Marissa Ribisi and Anthony Rapp, and while I liked all three of them, Mike's character bothered me as being too much of a caricature. He doesn't talk like a real person and seems to be more of an idea of a character than a real person. It's a small problem, but one I have nonetheless.

If you've never seen Dazed and Confused, I don't know how we're friends, but you need to see it immediately. If you saw it and didn't like it, watch it again and lower your expectations. This isn't an actual depiction of what it must have been like to live in the 70s, it's more like a memory, cooler than it probably actually was. This is all part of nostalgia though, things should never be just as they were, they should be representative and this movie captures that in spades. Lastly, if you haven't seen it in a while, do yourself a favor and watch it again (Criterion just put it out on bluray). It's aged so well and it's as good as, if not better than, you remember it to be.

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