Though billed as a baseball comedy, writer-director Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! owes its heftiest structural and thematic debt to pinball—which shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise given the director’s longstanding quirk of dropping the vintage arcade machines into his characters’ vicinities whenever given an ambient justification for doing so. But more than ever, the actual mechanics of pinball—the multi-directional movement, the cacophony of competing stimuli, the serendipity at play in winning or losing—function as Linklater’s guiding principles. The scene-building tactic that the film keeps returning to entails the camera hunkering down in a defined space (a frat-house common room, a bar, a dugout) to observe a large group of characters tripping over each other with rapid-fire quips, cutting between them like a little steel ball careening wildly off ramps and spring-loaded slingshots. It’s a strategy that keeps the film at a swift clip, even as it’s paradoxically not in a hurry to get anywhere particular.
The same kind of bumper-bounce pandemonium occurs at a plot level. Southeast Texas State University’s 1980 baseball squad is the film’s dramatic focus, but they’re less the assertive agents of the narrative than a malleable entity to be jostled around on a map by the forces of fortuity. Over the course of a boozy week leading up to the start of the semester, the guys find themselves dipping in and out of various regional subcultures: the cocksure jock fraternity to which they belong, of course, but also a denim-and-leather underground punk scene that feels like it’s drifted in from Slacker, a flamboyant performing arts crowd, and a local Texan cowboy culture always lurking on the fringes of the collegiate debauchery. A rabid appetite for the next Schlitz-swilling shindig is what propels the athletes toward these disparate gatherings, but the film’s clear implication is that everyone’s on the same game board, enjoying the same party; in a telling touch, Linklater caps off each respective revelry with its own bird’s-eye-view shot of musical camaraderie, be it through moshing, two-stepping, or disco-dancing.
More than earning the claims of Dazed and Confused kinship that have accompanied the film’s (dishearteningly limited) publicity, Everybody Wants Some!! assembles a cast of relative unknowns every bit as singular in their eccentricities as the now-famous screen virgins that graced the earlier film. Postcard-pretty but vaguely gawky Blake Jenner plays ostensible protagonist Jake, a gently meat-headed freshman pitcher who might as well be Boyhood’s Mason had Linklater’s last mild-mannered hero never found a passion in photography. Glen Powell makes the strongest impression as mustachioed gabber Finnegan, Wyatt Russell loosely fills Rory Cochrane’s part in Dazed and Confused as the joint-rolling and philosophizing Willoughby, and Tyler Hoechlin makes for an archetypal team captain as McReynolds, a swaggering hunk by turns upstanding and infantile. The list of indelible ensemble players could go on; suffice to say that only Juston Street, as hotheaded Jay, strikes a bum note in a role that bears too close a cosmetic resemblance to both Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico and Dodgeball’s White Goodman.
Residential regulations (no alcohol on the premises, no girls upstairs) are sternly issued to these longhaired beefcakes early on, and it’s a given that they go unheeded, but what’s unusual is Linklater’s omission from that point on of any adult watchfulness or authoritative reprimanding. In fact, the only time Coach Gordon (Jonathan Breck) returns after delivering his initial sermon on house rules is to escort a character revealed to be of fraudulent age out of the picture, as if patrolling the film for any fogies well past legal drinking age.
Just as last year’s Magic Mike XXL cast aside threatening social realities to occupy a utopia of its own volition, Everybody Wants Some!! luxuriates in a world that’s the platonic ideal of youthful indulgence. The film pictures an undergraduate atmosphere bursting at the seams with the usual vices (excessive drug use, dick-first thinking, hazing rituals), yet palpably lacking any sense of menace or predation. Female behinds are ogled, and always by both characters and camera (yet significantly always in that order), but the guys remain goofs longing for affection, while the girls are equally eager to find a companion. Indeed, everybody wants some.
Balking at this rosy depiction of young ids cut loose will be tempting for some, but this is clearly a case of a filmmaker so in love with a milieu (Linklater’s been angling to make the film for years, after all) that he’s willing to see it only in its best light. Everybody Wants Some!! abounds with lucid details that register as sense memories of the era: a deadpan cutaway to a taxidermied fox on a bar wall, a sensual close-up of cannabis being siphoned onto rolling paper, or a match cut that segues from a baseball about to be struck by an axe to a pool ball moments before being hit by a cue. Linklater delights in emphasizing the period’s gaudy exhibitionism and its mainstream intellectual and pop-cultural touchstones: he substitutes macho dudes into the typical girls-getting-ready-for-a-night-out montage; Carl Sagan and Jack Kerouac books adorn the frat living room; and Van Halen LPs and VHS recordings of Twilight Zone episodes fill bookshelves.
One of these reference points becomes the subject of Everybody Wants Some!!’s lynchpin scene, yet another that finds Linklater smuggling his artistic and philosophical M.O. into casual banter. A few of the guys are ripping a bong to Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” when Willoughby, high as a kite, starts musing on the song’s ascending instrumental refrain. It’s all about “finding tangents within the framework,” he argues, before concluding with a variation on an old chestnut of Linklater wisdom: “Don’t be afraid to let the experience find you.” The sentiment’s getting a bit old on paper, but it’s still hard to think of a better encapsulation for the experience of watching Linklater’s work, and especially this film, his airiest hangout riff since School of Rock. It’s one endorphin rush after another, and whenever wistfulness seeps in around the edges, it’s not long before another pick-me-up rolls around.