Ethics & Public Policy Center

SubUrbia

Published in EPPC Online on February 1, 1997



If you could legitimately take, as some reviewers seem illegitimately to have done, the final words of the Pakistani convenience store clerk, Nazir Chowdray (Ajay Naidu), in SubUrbia as the real direction in which the film is heading, it would not have been at all a bad picture — though written by Eric Bogosian (from his play) and directed by that champion of Slackers, Richard Linklater. Having watched for nearly two hours another collection of slackers hanging out at the convenience store and generally advertising their fecklessness, their uselessness and their charmlessness, we are more than well-disposed to Nazir’s disgusted dismissal of them: “You people are so stupid. What’s wrong with you? You throw it all away, huh? You throw it all away.”

Just so. Nazir is not likely to make the same mistake. Sober and hard-working, he is a part-time engineering student who expects to get a good job and a house with a swimming pool when he finishes his course in two years. When he sees the drunken louts who “hang out” at his family’s store and mock and yell racist taunts at him for lack of anything better to do, he is naturally contemptuous of them. And so, perhaps, will you be if you make the mistake of watching this rubbish. But this is not how we are meant to feel. Bogosian and Linklater are themselves too much enamored of the slacker “lifestyle” (as they would no doubt call it) not to present their characters more or less sympathetically, in spite of their moral and intellectual nullity.

Nazir’s words are only meant to give us pause for a moment in what is otherwise a wallow in adolescent self-importance and self-pity. Or if a more comprehensive judgment against these kids is intended, it is overwhelmed by the seriousness with which the film has taken them and their deep, deep silliness through the tedium of its previous 110 minutes. So tedious are they, in fact, that I can hardly bear to go back over the ground. The kids who hang out at the “Circle A” (little joke there, since the character intended to be taken most seriously professes to be an anarchist) include the Air Force dropout and former high school quarterback, Tim (Nicky Katt), and his two buddies Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), a would-be intellectual who lives in a pup tent in his parents’ garage, and Buff (Steve Zahn), who works in a pizza parlor and is the most spectacularly useless slacker of them all, a deeply repellent character who lives only for his piggish appetites.

But grossness and stupidity is apparently supposed to make him funny. There is also Jeff’s girlfriend, Suze (Amie Carey), a deeply untalented performance artist who seems to dream of being the next Karen Finley, and her high strung and apparently suicidal friend, Phoebe (Dina Spybey), who is just out of drug rehab. They all hang out and engage in the sort of adolescent philosophizing that Linklater has made is trademark. “When Hitler was greasing the Jews,” says Jeff, “people were saying ‘I don’t want to know about it, don’t bum me out’.” It’s my duty as a human being to be pissed off.” But quite what it is he’s pissed off about, and why and from what he is, as he claims, “alienated” — apart from decency and discipline — is never made clear. He never seems to get any further in his diagnosis of the social ills that alienated him than that “things are f***ed up beyond belief.”

What is really beyond belief is that either Bogosian or Linklater can suppose that that kind of vague expression of discontent is the kind of sentiment to which every bosom must return an echo. But its vagueness is also designed to mask the film’s own inability to decide between Tim’s xenophobic know-nothingism and Jeff’s obscurely well-intentioned left-wingery. But the general ambiance of indiscipline and self-indulgence makes it unreasonable to expect intellectual discipline or even fully formed ideas. Suze spouts feminist jargon which is not even partially digested and seems to think it a powerful ending to her dreary little political skit simply to repeat “F*** you” several times.

As they are hanging out, who should come along in a stretch limousine but their former classmate (they all seem to be a year or two out of high school), Pony (Jayce Bartok), who has since gone on to fame and fortune as a rock star. With him is his publicist, Erica (Parker Posey).

He seems to want to be taken by the others as still a regular guy, and tells them that “I forgot what it was like to just hang out. You guys are so real!” Yes, he really says that. But in the filmmakers’ defense, it is apparently meant to make him seem a bit of a jerk. Success, as we also see from the upwardly mobile Nazir, is a primal sin against the slacker code.

As the night wears on, Pony steals Suze away from Jeff with the promise of having her design his next album cover, Jeff and Phoebe have a bit of a heart-to-heart, Tim guesses Erika’s life story, she throws herself at him, and, after Tim’s “attitude” is taken to the extreme of its inherent ludicrousness and he pretends to have killed her, she turns up again in the limo, having hopped into the sack with the almost-as-repellent Buff. Buff believes that his own future is assured as Pony’s group’s director of music videos. Tim gets arrested for drunken misbehavior and then comes back with a gun for another display of attitude, facing off with Nazir. Then he finds Phoebe passed out, maybe dead, from booze and pills on the roof of the convenience store. We don’t find out what happens to her.

The one funny moment in the film, to my mind, is when Jeff is having his deeply meaningful discussion with Phoebe about how f***ed up everything is and confesses to her, what he obviously considers a shameful thing, that “I was jealous of Pony.”

Phoebe replies: “Well, yeah. He’s rich. He’s famous. He’s got everything. You’ve got nothing.”

But Bogosian/Linklater cannot exploit the comedy of the moment. Instead they have to indulge Jeff in yet another of his juvenile conceits about how Pony is really a prisoner of his limousine and his wealth and his fame while he, Jeff, is free — and to prove it takes off all his clothes.

Abby Hoffman, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

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