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Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke each have a new film opening this week. Surprisingly, they’re not the same one. The director and actor have collaborated on eight projects—including the critically acclaimed Before trilogy—but their latest efforts show that an artist can thrive without his muse, and vice versa. Everybody Wants Some!! and Born to Be Blue examine themes present in Linklater and Hawke’s prior efforts—the tension between potential and achievement, art and competition—but from entirely different angles. One is a breezy comedy with Zen-like wisdom, the other is a stormy biopic that challenges the conventions of its genre. Both are unquestionably great.
After 2014’s Boyhood, Linklater’s biggest commercial and critical success, the Austin-based director probably could have made any film he wanted. But instead of conjuring up some bright, new phase of his career, he turned his gaze back to Dazed and Confused, marketing Everybody Wants Some!! as a “spiritual sequel” to the cult classic. While it features none of the same characters, the connections are clear right from the start. The last shot of Dazed was of a few high school kids in the late 1970s on the open road, staring into their future. Everybody Wants Some!! opens on the same image, except now the future has arrived.
It’s 1982 and the first day at college for Jake Bradford (Blake Jenner), budding baseball star and scholarship student. He’s young and full of energy, but since this isn’t actually a sports movie (it belongs instead to a genre that Linklater might as well have created, the “hang-out movie.”), he and his teammates spend most of their time drinking, doing drugs, chasing girls, getting into fights, and generally being bros. Note: The women in the cast are chiefly eye-candy, with one exception. Jake romances a theater student (Zoey Deutch) in the final reel, but even this feels perfunctory, like a required nod from this distinctly pre-feminist film to today’s more sensitive era.
Everybody Wants Some!! is a nostalgia-driven affair, a film for men who want to be boys all over again. As in Dazed, all the characters are a little wiser, kinder, or older-looking than they would actually be in real life. Wyatt Russell cuts a very Wooderson-like figure as Willoughby, an eccentric relief pitcher who likes to stretch in the nude and dole out stoner wisdom; Tyrone Plummer, making his debut here, is Jake’s fellow frosh, easily the dumbest in the group but no less loveable; finally, Glen Powell gives a star-making performance as Finn, the clear leader of the group whose love of a good time allows him and his crew to transcend all social boundaries.
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See, the protagonists of Everybody Wants Some!! are a tight-knit tribe, but it doesn’t stop them from visiting other tribal nations. In their search for women and booze, Jake and his teammates visit with punks, theater geeks, disco aficionados, and country/western fans. Their clothes change to fit the scene, but their attitudes—loose, easygoing, and social—never do. It’s a natural extension of the ethos of Dazed, which featured a high school quarterback who moved effortlessly between the cool kids and the nerds. Everybody Wants Some!! expands on this theme, bringing it to the surface without losing the pleasingly aimless, often hilarious sensibility of its beloved predecessor.
Chet Baker, the subject of Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue, was also caught between worlds, but his tragedy was that he never belonged to any of them. A white jazz musician in an era dominated by black musical geniuses, he was shunned by his peers (including, in what the film frames as a crucial moment in Baker’s life, Miles Davis) and retreated into his dual addictions of love and heroin. Those with even a cursory knowledge of musical biopics know one has to win out.
Mercifully, Born to Be Blue refuses to acquiesce to the conventions of the genre. Instead of starting in childhood, Budreau drops us off midway through Baker’s career, after his heroin addiction has landed him in jail, and he’s been given a second chance playing himself in a new feature film. On the set, he falls for the actress playing his wife, and just as true love begins to take hold, Baker’s past catches up: A few thugs to whom he owes money break his jaw and knock out his teeth, forcing Baker to relearn the instrument he has played all his life. It is a slow and painful process, and it makes no promise that he can ever return to his illustrious career.
It’s heavy subject matter, but the film is remarkably light on its feet. Budreau matches Baker’s creative ingenuity, turning the cliched events of his subject’s life into a bracingly original story. Real-life moments you would expect to be depicted as triumphs are spun as tragedy. As Baker plays the trumpet, Budreau plays the audience: speeding up the tempo, scatting his way through certain periods in Baker’s life, then slowing down for key moments, luxuriating in the quiet notes and the recurring themes. He sputters out sometimes, too, losing the viewer in an unnecessary digression. Born to Be Blue in other words, isn’t about jazz. It is jazz.
Without Ethan Hawke, however, it might feel more like Muzak. It’s an indelible performance; from now on, when you think of Baker, you’ll picture Hawke. Throughout his long career, Hawke’s persona has settled somewhere between poet and jock, making him a keen fit for the musician known as “the James Dean of jazz.” But he doesn’t rest on his reputation here, instead creating something both iconic and deeply specific. He slides in and out of scenes like a feral cat, avoiding sudden movements when possible. He contorts his boyish voice into Baker’s soft, gentle rasp, evoking an innocent child transported into the body of a grizzled, old man. It’s easily the most transformative performance in the actor’s celebrated career thus far.
Hawke has also previously shined as angsty romantic leads, and while Born to Be Blue fashions itself as a love story, it doesn’t achieve the depth of feeling that it should. In this regard, it fails to improve on biopics like Ray and Walk the Line, in which fascinating female characters are largely reduced to the dismal supporting wife archetype. As Baker’s muse Jane, Carmen Ejogo (who stole scenes as Coretta Scott King in Selma) has little to do besides cry and fret over Baker’s addiction, then offer him tough love when the script demands it. The character exists as a symbol of the possibility of redemption, and although Ejogo and Hawke have terrific chemistry, her character’s lack of definition creates a small but meaningful void at the center of what could have been an even more powerful love story.
Like Everybody Wants Some!!, Born to be Blue sees women only as something to chase after; to be fair, so do their protagonists, and, at least in the latter’s case, the film dramatizes the consequences to his objectification. Everybody Wants Some!! is a consequence-free zone, but its message of inclusion, although not explicitly extended to the female gender, has some potential. Art can’t always catch up to our rapidly-changing social mores, but both of these films deserve credit for giving it the old college try.
Everybody Wants Some!! opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, Arclight Bethesda, and Angelika Film Center & Cafe at Mosaic. Born to Be Blue opens Friday at Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing Cinema.