First, let me reacquaint you with the Unwritten Law of Romantic Comedies: 99.5 percent of them don't work. This is inevitable. There is no feeling more difficult to replicate than the airy reaches of romance, from the queasy electricity of acceptance to the anvil dread of rejection (and all the intersecting emotions between). But, of course, filmmakers will always try, sure that they have something new to say. Not many of them do.
Now, let me introduce the First Law of Media Backlash: After heaping praise upon a fresh young filmmaker, critics will turn their knives on him or her at the first sign of weakness. This is done mostly to protect their critical reputations: "You made a merely adequate movie after I dubbed you the Orson Welles of the 90s? Then I have no choice but to declare your genius barren!" This has happened to Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch; one minute poised to rule Hollywood, the next languishing in the pits of "pretentiousness."
Both laws come into play in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, a romantic comedy that has been met with a withering barrage of disappointment from critics: How could the clever boy of Slacker and Dazed and Confused fame possibly make something less than perfectly engaging? Maybe he's not a visionary.
Truth be told, Before Sunrise doesn't have the fresh feel of either of Linklater's previous efforts, relying on a gimmick that's getting a tad familiar. But neither is it a bustBefore Sunrise has more genuine moments of romance than most Hollywood efforts. It is a film that deserves more of a chance than it will probably get.
Linklater's cinema is the drama of experience. He doesn't rely on plot hooks so much as emotions and themes. Not much "happens" in the movie-movie sense of the wordbut a lot happens in terms of real-life experience. People diffuse their aimlessness with talkative explorations in Slacker, a boy experiences the strictures and freedoms of becoming a teenager in Dazed and Confused. Linklater plays out small moments between unusually intelligent characters, letting them talk out their fears and needs. He has managed to do so in an effortlessly entertaining way, putting seemingly "real" experiences and "real" people up on the screen in natural settings. And he's funny, too.
That is, until Before Sunrise. Here we finally see some of the effort behind his technique. Here we must listen to dialogue for so long that we start to get fidgety. Here we have a Linklater film with bona fide "movie stars" instead of people pulled off the street. And it all showsbut not nearly enough to create the "bomb" other reviewers have deemed it. Before Sunrise still accomplishes what Linklater intends: it is an entertaining, light comedy with equal doses of romance and reality.
Ethan Hawke stars as an American bumming through Europe on his EurailPass after being dumped by his girlfriend in Spain. He spies Julie Delpy sitting across the train aisle, and engages her in conversation. Feeling lucky, he invites her to spend the day with him in Vienna; he must catch his plane to America the next morning, so why not take a chance? She agrees, and we watch them go sightseeing together, sharing their thoughts and feelings as they, yes, fall in love. It's a pretty audacious plot by Hollywood standardscan you carry an entire movie these days with just dialogue and handholding? Shouldn't you throw in a few car chases? Maybe a terrorist plot
Nevertheless, Linklater carries it off in his major studio debut, which is an achievement in itself. His trademarks are still intact. Quirky dialogue fills the script, working more often than not, though at times it definitely feels "written." Naturalistic acting abounds, though in the hands of Hawke and Delpy it sometimes faltersyou can't help but get the jarring sense that you've seen these people before in other movies. Linklater's earlier films had an almost endearing, unspoiled quality because he cast total unknowns. While the acting wasn't as polished, it certainly felt more "real," and the lack of familiar faces made fewer ripples in that reality.
Despite these few missteps, Before Sunrise keeps Linklater's reputation as a rising auteur intact. In fact, it shows healthy progress in his evolution from struggling indie to moderately successful playerhe has met the major studio test, and he has survived, priorities intact. He is one of the few directors today with an identifiable style that can't be homogenized by the Hollywood machine.
Odds are that with his next project he'll encounter the Second Law of Media Backlash: critics love a comeback kid.