Credit: Orion Pictures Corp/Everett Collection

The characters in Richard Linklater’s wonderfully original independent feature are a series of young, talkative, semi-employed hangers-on living in the quaintly dilapidated, sunbaked college town of Austin, Tex.: people on the fringes of the fringe. At the beginning of the movie, a handsome, long-haired young man (played by Linklater) climbs into a cab and launches into an earnest monologue about his theory of alternate realities. The cabbie makes no acknowledgment of anything he’s saying, and the young man never registers that he isn’t being listened to.

Moments later, he wanders off, and the camera drifts over to another person, then another, then another still. There are 97 characters in Slacker, each of whom arrives on-screen for a brief scene, spins out some pet idea, obsession, or philosophy, and then leaves. Linklater’s restless, gliding camera eases down sidewalks and into bedrooms, coffee shops, and bars, achieving a hypnotic continuity of time; it feels as if each character were passing a baton to the next. No one in the film ever makes a reappearance, and — as in that cab — no one really listens to anybody else. After a while, we begin to realize that we’re never going to ”know” these people. Yet in a sense, just by hearing each character’s unique style of prattling on, we know them completely — and the more we listen to them, the more they sound a lot like you and me.

Slacker, which owes much to the punk-deadpan mood of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (and to the Robert Altman of Nashville), doesn’t simply satirize the new, indolent generation of middle-class bohemian dropouts. The movie is a kind of metaphysical comedy about an era in which people, more and more, are living inside their own heads. This, the film seems to be saying, is the true legacy of the ’60s — the dazed, media-blitzed narcissism of young Americans who can afford to soak up their lives with private, cultish belief systems. At times, the film is like a low-end-of-the-economic-spectrum version of last year’s indie hit Metropolitan. Linklater, though, doesn’t underline his wit in red Magic Marker. Slacker has a marvelously low-key observational cool. Whether we’re listening to a Kennedy-assassination conspiracy buff, a woman who claims to be the proud owner of a Madonna Pap smear, or two homegrown intellectuals exchanging perfectly serious sociological theories about the Smurfs, the movie never loses its affectionate, shaggy-dog sense of America as a place in which people, by now, have almost too much freedom on their hands. A-

  • Movie
  • 97 minutes