I get that Richard Linklater is not interested in writing classic narrative films, loosely defined as a single main character chasing a single goal in spite of intense opposition. As a character in Everybody Wants Some!! says while stoned (and I’m paraphrasing), “You have the program (read story or melody) but it’s all about the tangents within the program.” To put it bluntly, nothing much happens in his movies, but the experience of talking about it supposedly makes up for the lack of surprising action. Not this time.
Linklater’s lack of interest in mainstream story structure and his heavy emphasis on dialogue doesn’t mean Everybody Wants Some!! is without structure. Quite the contrary, the movie is part of a strain of screenwriting commonly known as non-linear storytelling. I normally don’t use the term non-linear because it’s too broad. In my Masterpiece Class, I go through the beats of a number of story structures that fall under the non-linear category, and each gives you very different stories and very different effects.
Everybody Wants Some!! is an example of a “branching” story structure, the same structure used in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (and yes, I’m purposely giving the film’s author credit to the screenwriter, not the director) and George Lucas’s American Graffiti. There are many kinds of branching story structures, but generally these stories crosscut among multiple main characters and small groups within a limited period of time, often one night.
The branching structure has a lot of major effects on the story. First, it changes the focus from the single individual to the mini-society. Second, it shortens the story length and expands its breadth. Third, it changes the theme from the long-term development of an individual to an eternal utopian present. Ironically by telescoping the story down to 12-18 hours, you stop time and experience the moment. All the characters feel a sense of intense community, and then it’s gone. But for one brief shining moment…
The biggest cost to this structure – and all story structures have costs – is that you lose plot. When you track multiple characters within a maximum 120 minutes of a Hollywood feature film, you limit the choreography of attack and counter-attack between each main character and his or her opposition. That in turn limits the number and depth of reveals, or surprises.
In Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater loses even more plot by having so many scenes where many of his main characters are talking in a group. This removes any chance of plot coming from the crosscut between storylines, and crosscut is the key story tool in the branching form.
Implied in Linklater’s disdain for traditional plot is that he is making fun of the Hollywood conventional wisdom that says film is a “visual medium,” and that writers must always use “visual storytelling.” I couldn’t be happier about that. Yes, sometimes “visual storytelling” is a good idea, especially if you are writing in the action or myth genres. But dialogue is extremely valuable in any story, in any medium, in any genre. By removing almost all plot from his films, Linklater isn’t just saying that “visual storytelling” gives you a narrow band of what is possible and what could be great in film. He’s saying it’s all about the dialogue.
If you can write great dialogue, you might be able to pull that off. In his highly-rated “Before” movies (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight), I would argue there are quite a few moments of great dialogue. And those movies are a unique and major achievement in American film.
But great dialogue in film comes with at least two requirements. First, you need characters who we believe could actually come up with this stream of dense, thoughtful talk, right on the spot. Second, you have to have actors who can believably deliver that talk. In the “Before” films, he’s got two highly intelligent characters and two very fine actors who can make this articulate talk seem real.
None of that is present in Everybody Wants Some!!. The story, if you can call it that, covers three days in the life of a team of college baseball players just before classes begin. The movie is essentially three days of frat boy jocks talking incessantly while trying to get laid.
Now this is as annoying as it sounds, and it’s all made worse by the fact that these characters strut around as if they are the wittiest guys since Noel Coward. If the dialogue sounded either real or deep I could probably find at least a modicum of interest. But it’s neither. Linklater was apparently a college baseball player, so you’d think the talk would at least sound authentic. I spent a good part of my high school and college career on sports teams, and this talk doesn’t even come close to sounding real. It’s the cliché of what people who are not athletes think male athletes say when there are no women around.
You may say that this is exaggerated talk intended to get laughs. Loosen up, it’s a comedy. The fact that comedic dialogue is supposed to exaggerate is true up to a point. But when the dialogue is so over-the-top phony it distances you from the situation, it’s not funny. You’re always aware that the writer is trying to get you to laugh.
Part of the phoniness comes from the fact that Linklater is constantly trying to choreograph four or five guys explaining something to the rookie. Somehow each knows when it’s his turn to speak, so it comes off as if they all got together ahead of time to agree on what each was going to say and when each was going to say it. Like a sign is flashing in a corner of the screen: CAUTION – ACTORS PERFORMING DIALOGUE.
The phoniness is made worse by the fact that Linklater also wants these guys to sound deep. I’m certainly not arguing for the dumb jock stereotype here. But having them all spout philosophically, especially while chasing, and getting, one woman after another just makes the whole thing ludicrous.
These actors give it their best shot. But Brando couldn’t have made this stuff seem real, and the fact that these guys are a long way from Brando just makes the whole thing painful.
I’m fully aware that Richard Linklater is one of the most highly regarded writer-directors in American movies today, and this film is getting a lot of praise as well. If he wants to set his writing apart from others by jettisoning plot, and can still get his films funded, that’s fine with me. But I would argue that Everybody Wants Some!! is a powerful case study in how not to write dialogue, which is the one major writing skill where Linklater has staked his claim to greatness.