Most filmgoers don’t know Richard Linklater’s name but his effect has been felt through the American independent film scene since the debut of Slacker in 1991. For the star-studded cast of commenters sitting down for some insights into Linklater, it’s hard to imagine a world without him. He is the unicorn who managed to build an entire career of passion projects, a rare opportunity indeed.
Written and directed by Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood, 21 Years: Richard Linklater seeks perspectives on one of cinema’s most underrated directors via interviews and stories shared by notable filmmakers Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Jack Black, Keanu Reeves, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Reitman, Kevin Smith, the Duplass brothers, and Matthew McConaughey. To provide a unique spin on talking heads, Dunaway and Wood splice in animated interludes which make for some handily entertaining recollections of the auteur and his career.
What follows isn’t earth-shattering — not that all documentaries have to be — just satisfying. Cool actors shooting the breeze about one of his generation’s iconoclasts seems like it should be one of the easiest recommendation I’ve been presented with as a critic, but the overall product feels slight. With a few less actors offering first-hand accounts – there are at least 17 speakers – 21 Years: Richard Linklater could focus more on analyzing the craft behind works that were ignored completely like Waking Life.
Watching so many people offer their two cents, the lack of depth can’t help but be felt. While it’s fun to see so many recognizable faces sharing their experiences working with Linklater, one wonders how much stronger this film could have been if they limited the cast to actors who worked with him on multiple occasions. It’s no coincidence that the contributions of collaborators like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (the Before Trilogy), Jack Black (School of Rock and Bernie), and Matthew McConaughey felt more essential. Hawke, especially reaches for some deeper understanding, but too often he gets cut off by another clip. That said, I admire the restraint on the part of co-directors Dunaway and Wood to not let Matthew McConaughey walk away with the whole running time (learning that he mistakenly assumed he was offered the titular role in Bernie was a good laugh).
The structuring of the documentary and when entries are discussed feels curious. Granted, there is very little tying Linklater’s work together, but features coupling Bad News Bears with A Scanner Darkly are head-scratchers when School of Rock appears much more fitting of a companion. Ending the documentary with Slacker would have made more sense if Reitman and Smith hadn’t already acknowledged the film in previous segments. Most unfortunate in all of this is the lack of Boyhood. That film didn’t wrap until after the conclusion of this documentary so one of the biggest challenges of Linklater’s career goes largely untouched in a documentary about a writer/director who loves to take risks.
With so many friends of Linklater contributing to the discussion there is a lot of gushing going on, but a few surprises are had here and there: Linklater’s laidback, improvisational style that Steven Chester Prince enjoyed on The 12 Year Project (later titled Boyhood) was largely non-existent when working on the adaptation of A Scanner Darkly. A reason behind the director’s insistence on sticking to a script on that film, contrasted with his previous habits, would have been revealing. Linklater nurtures every actor who works for him into an idealized version of themselves onscreen. His sense for performance and authentic dialogue is unparalleled by contemporaries, a closer look at his technique, or speaking to Linklater himself could have pushed this from merely entertaining to a must-see.
There is no need to rush right out to see 21 Years: Richard Linklater in theatres, but there’s good anecdotes to be had for hardcore Linklater fans or those new to his career looking for something to stream this weekend.