Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dazed and Confused (1993)

Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Matthew McConaughey (and many more)

Going into Dazed and Confused, I knew more about its famous soundtrack (filled with so much memorable 1970s rock ‘n’ roll) than the film itself despite its being widely considered a “classic” among Generation X, and the Millennials (my generation) to a lesser extent.  I was aware of Matthew McConaughey’s famous line about the age of high school girls and Ben Afflect’s obsession with paddling the little freshmen.  Beyond that I just assumed it was a standard teen stoner sex comedy where dimwitted kids spend their days trying to score drugs, booze, and tail.  While the kids of Dazed and Confused do spend a considerable amount of time getting high, drunk and (attempting to get...) laid, it is not nearly as dimwitted as the teen stoner sex comedies I associated it with.

Richard Linklater’s breakout film follows a vast cast of characters in a small Texas suburb on the last day of school, and its subsequent night.  The kids of this town perfectly reflect every high school cliché.  What separates this film from others is Linklater’s ability to strike a balance between all of Dazed and Confused’s characters.  They may be clichés:  the football star who has trouble with authority, the preppy bitch, the perpetually red-eyed stoner, the sadistic bully, the scrawny freshmen, the creepy dude in his 20s who feels important around teens, the philosophizing observers bound for college, and many, many more.  But within its 100 plus minutes, all these kids are given enough screen time that they are molded into compelling characters nonetheless.

These kids may be very different but with no more school to worry about, they are all left in the same situation: stuck in a rink-a-dink town with nothing to do.  Dazed and Confused is about how these kids find ways to fill their time.  One of the most popular activities to pass the time is smoking pot.  The days are spent toking up during the lunch break and their nights are spent taking drives to nowhere with a freshly rolled joint.  One of the bigger storylines involves the Randall “Pink” Floyd’s (Jason London), the star quarterback, rebellion against his meathead coaches making the team vow to stay on the “right track,” whatever that means.  Pot also leads to some of the biggest laughs in the film, such as Slater’s (Rory Cochrane), the preeminent stoner, theory about Martha Washington being a “hip, hip lady.”  Dazed and Confused definitely earns its title as a stoner comedy, and it is a damn effective one.

This small town also has well-defined hazing traditions that help these kids pass the time on the first night of summer vacation.  At the end of every school year, the soon to be senior guys unsheathe their wooden paddles and round up the incoming freshmen for a brutal ass beating while the senior girls degrade their incoming freshmen with ketchup, mustard, and insults.  These scenes are horrific (if things like this actually happened), but seeing it so widely accepted with teachers chuckling and concessions being sold in the parking lots, that its absurdity heightens the horrors into hilarity.  It’s especially funny when the two most sadistic tormentors have become two of the film’s biggest stars in subsequent years, Parker Posey and Ben Afflect.  With a cast full of no names, it is fun to see some the biggest names play the most deplorable people on screen (though everyone was a no name at the time).

The hazing rituals also allow for Dazed and Confused to enter the “coming-of-age” genre.  Once Fred O’Bannion (Ben Afflect) unloads his paddle on the scrawniest of freshmen, Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), the young kid can officially begin his transition from middle school to high school.  These seniors unleash hell and those who can take it instantly earn their respect.  In the course of one night, Mitch (with "Pink" Floyd’s guidance) goes from being the cowardly middle school kid to a pot smoking, beer drinking ladies’ man.  This transformation is one of the most fun aspects to watch in Dazed and Confused, especially when the events run counter to our initial expectations (A smooth beer run?  Hooking up with an older girl? Being accepted by the stoners and jocks?).  The hazing is just a way to pass the time in an aimless, nothing-to-do town and once one gets through that ritual, everyone is stuck in the same boat.

Most importantly, Dazed and Confused consistently brings the laughs, and laughs that are good enough in their own right, that getting high beforehand is not necessarily a prerequisite.  Having to be a stoner to like a “stoner comedy” is merely an excuse to forgive bad comedy and Dazed and Confused does not fall into that category.  I think every character in the cast made me laugh at some point or another, and with so many characters, that happened plenty of times.  There was a lot of hype surrounding this film (from critics, friends, and the general population in between), so I was perhaps a little suspicious that it could actually be as good as people say.  In the end, I enjoyed Dazed and Confused enough to say that it was worthy of the hype.  It takes the stoner teen comedy genre and ups the quality of it in every way; I’m a big fan.

One final note about this film before I wrap things up with a “mark”:  did anyone else feel super lame about their high school experience after watching Dazed and Confused?  I know the hazing rituals never happened in the streets of West Allis (and hope that things so barbaric are never tolerated), but the more realistic party aspects depicted here were just as foreign to my high school self.  You can’t help but feel like there was fun to be had that I wasted in years past (though I broke out of my shell in college enough that the feeling never gets beyond just the “bummer” territory).  However, it would be interesting to see a Dazed and Confused sequel where the overweight tormentors in its hazing rituals slouch at the bar nostalgically petting their paddles, the only reminders of their life's pinnacle.  Then the lamer high school kids (myself) can enjoy Dazed and Confused without a twinge of guilt. 

But all this is a minor and silly quibble in an otherwise excellent comedy.

Mark it 8.

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