'subUrbia': A bitter pill Review: Film captures pain of young adulthood, then loses its initiative.

March 28, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Youth is too precious, they say, to be wasted on the young; time is too precious, I say, to be wasted on the young of "subUrbia," which opens today at the Charles.

The film, an awkward blend of the loosey-goosey filmmaking style of director Richard "Dazed and Confused" Linklater and the more formal melodramatics of bombastic playwright Eric Bogosian, charts the splintering group dynamic among a gaggle of young adults in a suburb of Austin, Texas, who've elevated bitterness into a cult.

It's one of those projects about which one must say that nothing is wrong with it except it. All of it.

The young people -- not teens, mind you, but in their early 20s -- have small, futile, service economy jobs and gigantic dreams untainted by reality. One wants to write, another to make music videos, another to go to New York to be a performance artist. They don't really do any of this, unfortunately. They don't do anything. Instead, they hang out in the pitiless, moth-infested glare of a fluorescent light in a 24-hour convenience store parking lot, where they test brown paper bags for their beer-can camouflage capacity. They are sad, familiar, hopeless, annoying, the same kids of "Reality Bites," but much blotchier and not quite as attractive. You'll look in vain for anyone as attractive as Winona Ryder.

Bogosian, to his credit, has a wondrous feel for the believable rhythms of their speech, their incredibly subtle use of irony as bladed weapons. The kids are so ironic, they talk in a language that means exactly the opposite of what it says, and this betrays the larger grudge against the culture. They've even turned against MTV, which they now regard as another bogus adult hustle. Rock no longer has any authenticity for them. They only feel their pain.

Really, they're nothing but pain, exposed nerve endings swaddled in ad hoc wardrobes with pierced body parts and broken hearts. What are they rebellin' against? Why, it's just like Johnny said all those years ago in "The Wild One": Whattaya got?

Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi) is the writer who lives in a tent in his mother's garage. He may actually put a word on paper once in a while, but his main job is to keep a daily accounting of the misery of his life, nerve impulse by nerve impulse, and to act as ringmaster of the parking lot. The nightly regimen: whine, keen and mourn and then annoy the store owner, a Pakistani engineering student who is actively pursuing a destiny.

But on this night, the world itself is about to self-destruct, because their one escapee -- Pony (Jayce Bartok), a minor rock performer -- revisits them, in his stretch limo, with his sexy publicist (Parker Posey). His motives are the least-developed theme in the film, unremarked upon by either the playwright-screenwriter or the director. But if they're unexamined, they're not benign: Clearly, he's here to rub it in, to steal Jeff's girl Sooze and seduce Buff's vitality and avoid Tim's fists and then go back to L.A. having completely wiped out the old high school set. He's a little like the Joe Stalin who executed everyone who ever knew him, the only difference being that Stalin didn't care what people thought. Pony still wants to be liked.

The actors are all pretty good, particularly Nicky Katt as the nearly psychotic Tim and Amie Carey, as Sooze, who is beginning to get it. And as usual, Linklater has his anthropologist's sense of the reality of youth: He's inherited the mantle of John Hughes, who threw it down to get rich on vomit like "Home Alone" after making "16 Candles" and "The Breakfast Club." But the film is continually undone by extravagantly melodramatic plot manipulations.

Why? Their attitudes are so interesting, their angers so fascinating, their bitterness so raw. But suddenly we're in a Plot Twists-R-Us franchise, spiraling toward murder, and it turns out to be a joke; then we're spiraling toward suicide, and it's another joke. It's as if, late in the piece, Bogosian had no idea what to do with the interesting characters he'd created or how to shut them up, so he sent them spinning down a few blind alleys just to up the ante. Yet what was exactly so appealing about the film is exactly what disappears: its sense of the small-beer agonies of lives that have not begun yet.

The movie plays over an eight-hour time span, but it's not set in real time. It only feels like it.


Starring Jayce Bartok, Giovanni Ribisi and Parker Posey

Directed by Richard Linklater

Released by Fine Line

Rated R (profanity)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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