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Richard Linklater directed Dazed and Confused, a slice-of-life portrait of 70's teenagers filling up their time with parties, boozing and getting high. That film captured the idleness and boredom associated with a fixation on those activities, but did not make any heavy or preachy statements on that lifestyle. SubUrbia, however, in its portrait of equally idle 20-somethings, is far more frank about the emotional effects of such tedium. This is because of the screenplay by playwright Eric Bogasian. Naturally, being based on a stage play, this movie is far more focussed on words, dialogue, concrete ideas - and is certainly far more heavy-handed than anything in Dazed and Confused. The nature of the production will certainly turn off most fans of Dazed; even without the constant bitterness, the fact that these guys do almost nothing but talk will distract those with small attention spans.

A bunch of guys and gals, including one played by Giovanni Ribisi, hang out at the corner store, much to the displeasure of the Pakistani owner. One, named Tim, is a former army man who now lives on his pension, and spends his life drinking. Buff, possibly the biggest moron I've ever seen, is a perverted show-off whose primary verbal occupation is relating primitive sexual fantasies out loud to those within earshot. Sooze, Ribisi's girlfriend, is a budding performance artist who hopes to go to New York to art school. Bee-Bee is a former addict who still finds rehab quite tough. And Ribisi's character is a cynic, far too smart to be with most of these people, but still unwilling to find a way out.

All of them are waiting for the arrival of Pony, formerly a geek from high school, now an up-and-coming rock star. He arrives in his limo, along with his publicist (Parker Posey), and they all hang out for the night. The rest of the evening involves much pain, truth, and resentment, and is played out in a generally fascinating way, as we are given a picture of fairly hopeless individuals.

Much of the heightened emotions are possible because of the nature of Ribisi's character, and how he projects himself to the others. He is clearly a very smart guy - certainly much more aware than Tim and Buff, yet is very unambitious. But of course he's without ambition, because he's cynical about everything. Right from the start, we can see where this guy is going. He berates Tim and Buff for their casual racism toward the Pakistani, but then turns around and feels rejected because Sooze would dare leave him and this town. He hates the ignorance and stupidity around him, but doesn't have the willpower or the courage to change his surroundings, and he reveals this mainly by lashing out at those who are trying to or already looking beyond this small town. First, he criticizes Sooze's performance piece about the evils of testosterone (which, I admit, is pretty ridiculous!), mainly from the standpoint that he feels she doesn't really stand for anything. He then knocks Pony's music, because he feels it, too, is a bunch of empty bullshit. Ironically, of course, it's not much of a stretch to say that Ribisi is correct - I believe that Sooze and Pony really are a couple of fakes (neither her performance piece or his song he plays to the slackers really say anything), pretending to everyone (and to themselves) that they are doing something noble, when all they really want is attention. Hey, look, I made it; I'm not some drunk hanging out at the corner! The result of their meeting each other is certainly appropriate.

Bogasion is a very interesting writer, although there isn't really anything here that's as disturbing as his work in Talk Radio (I've only seen a half hour of the film version on TV, but it's still more disturbing!). It comes close, however, in the second half of the film, when it appears as if something genuinely horrific has occurred. The rest of the film after that is fairly grim; I'm not sure what the message is, but, as narrative, it works.

The movie does not have any seemingly unnecessary moments. It is a play, and like most plays, the emphasis is on dialogue and character, not heavy action or many scene changes (how could you stage them?). In a sense, a movie version of a play is one of the better ways of staging a play, if only because, in a film's case, the stage is real, and the buildings and other props aren't made of cardboard, or what have you. In SubUrbia's case, the scenes go on for minutes at a time, but seems natural, because the characters develop, and the narrative makes sense. It doesn't suffer too much from excess verbiage, unlike, say, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which is quite good, but too much in love with word games and the like. But, nevertheless, it does force a situation where a second viewing is required.

SubUrbia probably won't appeal to most adolescents, and certainly not the type of Dazed and Confused fans whom I described, rather uncharitably, as fans only because they have a thing for drug humour. Most teens aren't going to enjoy a film burdened with talk, especially the kind of talk which often wounds and which often suggests that these characters are missing something in their lives. Well, I suppose some teens may laugh at that idiot Buff, thinking that he's the coolest guy around. But people who think Buff is "awesome", and potentially relate to him, are missing the point of the play entirely, and deserve their fate.

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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