'Dazed and Confused' lingers in an uninteresting time and place

October 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

There's an old Chinese curse that says: "May you live in the '70s."

Well, maybe there's not, but there should be. So now we have a movie that takes us back to . . . disco . . . platform shoes . . . marijuana . . . Watergate. One question it never answers: Why?

Another question it never answers: Who cares?

"Dazed and Confused" is being called the "American Graffiti" of the '70s, primarily by the people who have money invested in it. And it has superficial similarities: It's one of those magic-night numbers, where a disparate mob of teen-agers, liberated from ++ their last day of school, wanders through an eventide that seems last a million years, meeting, combining and recombining, having adventures, getting high or getting drunk or getting high and getting drunk, falling in love, falling out of love . . . you get the picture.

Yet the movie founders on one issue. "American Graffiti," besides being somewhat better in purely formal terms, managed entirely to transcend its regionality. Set in a small northern California town, it was such a boldly vivid near-myth that it acquired an instantaneous universality. It was Everyteen's life.

Alas, "Dazed and Confused" never begins to escape its regionality. It's hamstrung by its entwinement with a local eccentricity so bizarre that it never breaks free. It is probably the best North Texas 1976 high school movie ever made, but unless you went to high school in North Texas in 1976, who gives a rat's butt?

In that state at that time, the primary rite of passage was evidently a vicious night of hazing, by which the eighth-graders who would be next year's freshmen were amiably brutalized by the high school juniors who would be next year's seniors. Even if you survived such a ritual humiliation (lots of paddling), it could haunt you for all your days, as it clearly has director Richard Linklater. If it's all news to you, it'll seem pretty obscure.

"Dazed and Confused" is really about hazing. It chronicles primarily a squad of oppressors and a squad of oppressees. And it's not merely a guy thing: The junior girls are especially nasty to their eighth-grade counterparts, forcing them to do push-ups, squirting them with mustard and other condiments, calling them sluts -- this is on school property!

What's more astounding is that such brutality is clearly so institutionalized by town culture that no one dares stand against it, except one woman who comes out of her house with a shotgun to prevent a 200-pounder from whipping down on her 98-pound son and is viewed in the movie's terms as a prude. Frankly, it looked like a clear case of justifiable homicide to me.

Against this backdrop, "Dazed and Confused" tells a standard story. There's a small subset of intellectuals disgusted at the macho ethos that oozes through the night but who cannot deny its pungent perfume. There's a number of upperclassmen of either gender who reach out to befriend and protect -- almost "sponsor" -- an eighth-grader. There's a jock who is beginning to see through the conformity of football and the high school class structure and wonder if there isn't a better way, an issue brought to a head by the coaching staff's insistence that all boys sign a no-drugs (i.e., no grass) pledge. Most of the players do it in a spirit of merry dishonesty but Jason London can't lie like that.

Some of these stories work, some don't. Overall, the sentimentalization of the high school experience is what grows wearisome and oppressive as the movie wears onward. For so many of these kids, this night seems like the most poignant in their lives, and that's a shame.

"Dazed and Confused"

Starring Roy Cochrane, Jason London and Sasha Jenson

Directed by Richard Linklater

Released by Grammercy Pictures

Rated R

** 1/2

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