How Richard Linklater Uses Naturalism to Find Comedy

Richard Linklater is having what can probably be considered the most visible period of his career with the release of his highly anticipated and equally regarded Boyhood. This marks the first time that the box office success and critical success of one of his projects coalesced into a true major cultural moment, prompting numerous career retrospectives and think-pieces. Common take on Richard Linklater is that his filmography is defined by unpredictability, never bound to one particular label and always willing to try new things as a director. Just when you think you can track his Rohmer-influenced style through Slacker and the Before Trilogy, you realize his name is also on stylistically unique films like A Scanner Darkly or broader studio fare like Me and Orson Welles, and School of Rock.

For our purposes, Linklater has four films that could ostensibly be categorized as comedies – Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Bad News Bears, and Bernie – and yet it is hard to track a structural or stylistic throughline between them in analyzing why this famously chameleon-like director was drawn to these stories or working on them within in the comedy genre. This could be because Linkater’s films of all genres are hardly ostentatious in their filmmaking. Of his contemporaries in the 90s independent film boom, Linklater is not an aesthete like Todd Haynes, nor is he as stylish as Soderbergh. Roger Ebert writes in his review of Dazed and Confused, “The film is art crossed with anthropology,” which aptly describes Linklater as a director as well. Known for lengthy and intense rehearsal periods, he is able to find a level of anthropological authenticity through a combination of his narrative and his actors’ lived experiences and present day worldviews. His works feel massively authentic and democratic, nostalgic without feeling glossy. The question then is: how does this unique skillset come into play when he has attempted comedy?

In Dazed and Confused, it is quite clear. Linklater does away with the phoniness and broadness that came to create the high school and ’70s stereotypes in the 20 years between the film’s time period and production. Instead, he focuses the lens on a much smaller scale, a single day, so that the each character can be given deep focus and attention. In doing this, Linklater shows the viewer how the common stereotypes were formed and why they feel so familiar. It also helps that Matthew McConaughey as the iconic Wooderson gives the most purely funny performance in Linklater’s canon.

The film asks the viewer to examine experience vs. memory. It is a reminder of how we all took ourselves far too seriously in high school no matter what group we trended towards. In this way, it is as much an examination of the jocks trying to come to terms with the masculinity society expects of them as it is an indictment of the performative “chill” of the stoner types. Linklater is well aware of this which is why he resists giving the narrative a traditional protagonist and instead lets many story threads hold equal weight, with each interacting with others in a way that feels natural to the space and time rather than to drive a constructed narrative.

The film’s plot stakes are so massively low – the biggest drama is basically whether or not Wooderson is going to be able to score them Aerosmith tickets – that the level of intensity in making that night “the best night of their lives” sparks a widespread familiarity. The film takes almost every viewer back to a time in their lives when they remember feeling so sure about the person they were and the worldview they felt at that time but seemed totally ridiculous only even a few years removed.

Bernie is perhaps Linklater’s only film in which form, in this case a “documentary,” influences function. The form insists that the viewer takes what they are being told as fact. Again working with the idea of experience vs. memory, Linklater weaves his dark comedy into real interviews with real townspeople reflecting on the real Bernie Tiede. Rather than asking the viewer to tap into their own experience and memory as a reflection of the story Linklater is telling, he is asking us to believe what we are being told by “real” people as truth, and then playing with that knowledge in the narrative. He is still playing with the same subversion of memory and expectations of the viewer as he was in using the familiarity of the high school experience in his narrative in Dazed and Confused.

In an interview with The AV Club, Linklater says, “When you study the great black comedies, like Dr. Strangelove or something, the straighter you play it, the better it can work.” There is no straighter way to play a story as specifically bizarre as the Bernie Tiede story than to assure the viewer right off the bat that what they are about to see is a true story.

School of Rock is a bit of an anomaly; a quick look at the reviews around its release paint a picture of a broad studio comedy that for some reason everybody was charmed by but no critic could pin down exactly why. Jack Black’s lead character, Dewey, is a flawed, selfish adult; not a babysitter who is just there to facilitate easy laughs from the hijinks of child actors. Many of Linklater’s staples– rock music, likable misfits, coming-of-age – are all part and parcel of what makes School of Rock rise above the broadness of a typical studio comedy. His Bad News Bears remake reads much more like director-for-hire studio-fare where pieces from things that worked previously (Billy Bob Thornton acting acerbic around kids in Bad Santa) don’t coalesce in the same way, but Jack Black’s chemistry with the kids and the specificity of the band and their relationships helps make School of Rock a film I can watch over and over (and do, given it’s cable omnipresence).

In a recent Slate piece about Boyhood, frequent Linklater player Ethan Hawke is quoted as saying, “Like a good athletic coach, [Linklater] knows how to put you into position to do what you do well.” That style of directing is proven by directors like Woody Allen and Judd Apatow to really work for comedy. The comfort he has with his actors and story radiates off the screen and gives his comedies a level of accessibility and familiarity. Linklater has always been a director, no matter the subject matter, to empathize deeply with the worldview of the characters he creates. The emotions in his films are infectious, and in comedy, a genre heavily dependent on tone and mood, Linklater’s ability to tap into the collective memories and experiences of the viewers is invaluable.

Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you’ll regret it during Knicks games.

How Richard Linklater Uses Naturalism to Find Comedy