I guess you either love Richard Linklater or you don’t. I don’t, and from what I can gather, I am the only movie lover in the world that doesn’t love his movies. “Boyhood,” which is currently playing at the Gaslight, has a perfect score at metacritic.com. I’ve never seen a movie keep a perfect score on that site for more than a week – some critic is always willing to come along and burst the bubble, to complain about some small element of a truly fantastic movie. But “Boyhood” has been out for a month, and stands unassailed thus far. Everyone loves it. Everyone but me. (Too bad metacritic.com doesn’t pay attention to this small but excellent newspaper. I could be the bubble-burster.)
“Boyhood” was filmed over a period of eleven years, from 2002 to 2013. Linklater would get the group of actors together every year, shoot a few vignettes, and then send them on their way. This gives us the chance to watch the main character, a kid named Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grow from first grade to his first day of college. I guess this is impressive, experimental filmmaking, sort of. But just a few years ago, I got to watch Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson grow up on film, and those films had dragons in them.
There are no dragons in “Boyhood.” There’s hardly any plot at all (and I swear to God, if another critics puts plot in quotation marks, I’m going to slap someone) or narrative structure, or dramatic tension. Linklater has done away with all storytelling techniques altogether, apparently because he’s not interested in telling a story. I’m sure there’s some nonsensical reason behind this; I can just hear Linklater spouting off that “life doesn’t have a narrative arc, bro – it doesn’t happen in three acts” but that makes me just want to answer back that this isn’t life, this is a movie, and even if it is a movie about life, even if it did take you twelve years to make it, it’s still a movie, it’s three and a half hours of my butt stuck in a theater seat, and would a TINY BIT OF STORYTELLING really kill your precious artistic vision?
Mason Jr. has an older sister, played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei (which begs the question: was it really even all that hard to get these actors together once a year, when one of them is in almost all of your movies, and another lives in your house?) Their parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, are divorced before the movie starts. They got married and had kids too young. Now Arquette is trying to figure out what to do with her life with two kids in tow; she works a job, goes to school at night, and does her best to keep her kids clothed and fed and all of them sane. Hawke, meanwhile, is too busy having adventures in Alaska and driving fast cars and being in a band to be a father. He shows up periodically, takes them bowling, spouts confused platitudes about Life and Love and Relationships at them, and then disappears again. One of these moments that I found particularly irritating: he won’t let Mason Jr. use the bumpers at the bowling lane, because “life doesn’t give you bumpers.” I wanted to shout at him, “Yes, life does give you bumpers. They’re called parents.” But since he refuses to play that role for his kids, deciding he’d rather be their cool older friend and slacker guru instead, I guess it makes sense that they’ll have to throw gutter balls until they can figure out how to keep it in the lane by themselves.
Mason Jr.’s mom is so desperate for some sense of structure and stability that she keeps going overboard, falling for anti-Masons. The first is one of her professors, a man with kids of his own, who descends from closet alcoholic to complete drunken, abusive nightmare. This is the best part of the movie, because a) Ethan Hawke isn’t in it, and b) there’s actually something at stake; this guy is dangerous, and when Arquette does finally leave him, it is heart-wrenching to see the other two kids, who have become friends and siblings to Mason and his sister, left behind, and realize they (and we) are probably never going to see them again. But a few years later Arquette falls for a sullen ex-Marine who doesn’t seem to be enjoying his job as a corrections officer very much. He clashes with teenage Mason, who is longhaired, paints his nails, and smokes pot. The Marine disappears from the film abruptly and without explanation, but by this time, we can pretty much guess what happened.
Both of these guys serve to make Ethan Hawke look better – he might be a hipster windbag, but at least he’s not alcoholic and abusive. But then Hawke comes back for the final hour of the film, and we’re reminded just why Arquette could not stand to live with this guy. He’s settled down now, married a nice Christian gal and had a baby, sold the sports car and bought a minivan, and grown a horrible Ned Flanders mustache. But he’s still a rock star philosopher on the inside. And just when it seems like he ought to be working hard to listen, inviting his son to express his own thoughts and feelings about life, the universe, and everything, he just Will. Not. Shut. Up.
Hawke is Linklater’s voice in the film, and I find Linklater unbearably preachy. I watched the entire “Before Sunrise” trilogy, and didn’t like any of them; I thought they should all be subtitled “Why Love is Impossible When you’re Completely Self-Obsessed.” Linklater doesn’t preach any particular religion or philosophy, but he pushes his particular brand of half-assed existentialism very aggressively in his films. And, to give credit where credit’s due, his slacker philosophy appears to be resonating, at least with a ton of critics, who don’t think it’s preachy at all, just the straight up TRUTH about life, bro.