Monday, July 14, 2014
I'd been looking forward to "Boyhood" as much as any movie set for theatrical release this year.
Directed by Richard Linklater, whose "Before" trilogy I have called the best in modern history (culminating in "Before Midnight," my #1 film last year), "Boyhood" follows a boy named Mason (played by a newcomer with the cool name Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen. His parents (regular Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) have divorced and he and his sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei) live with mom, who between going back to college and becoming a psychology professor remarries twice. Dad gets visitation.
The movie was shot over twelve years at the rate of a week a year. At its best (Michael Apted's "Up" series), film that shows us the same people over time can reveal profound human truths; at its worst, the concept can come off as gimmickry. Set to the poignant "Hero" by Family of the Year, the trailer gave me high hopes for the former. And, in addition to a strong comeback performance by Arquette, "Boyhood" does contain moments of truth, tenderness and humor.
What amazed me, though, is how much of it rings false and screams of script. Linklater relies heavily on coincidence and obvious cuing (for instance, you know Arquette's gonna shack up with a guy whenever Mason looks at them with the same quizzical expression). The two stepdads - the first a verbally and physically abusive alcoholic, the second a self-loathing alcoholic - are such tired tropes I wondered aloud what they were doing in a Linklater film. Hawke, a sometime favorite of mine, seems like a guy very eager to read the lines he's written for himself. Coltrane's adorable as a kid, but affected as a child actor. His performance improves over the years, but the character never goes anywhere.
And that's the fundamental problem with "Boyhood." When Mason's first real girlfriend breaks up with him, she tells him he's this sort of glum, morose guy who never exerts much effort or energy. I turned to my friend and said, "She's right." Linklater's fondness for slackers is well-known, but Mason's almost infuriatingly laconic. We're told he has a talent for photography, but see no evidence of it; in any event, he doesn't work at it, just snaps shots. As I wrote in my four-star review of the chess documentary "Brooklyn Castle," gifted kids who apply themselves make it real tough to give a fig about those who don't.
"Boyhood" runs to two hours and 45 minutes. By the third hour, it slows to a crawl. It doesn't help that the music is so painfully bad that, with the exception of "Hero," I'd pay not to listen to the soundtrack. We spend the runtime searching for a way into Mason, without avail. I was ready to love this movie. I hoped it might be my first four-star review of the year. The problem is as simple as this: "Boyhood's" about the wrong boy.