The key to unlocking Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater's criminally underappreciated "spiritual sequel" to his 1993 classic Dazed and Confused, lies within a character named Willoughby.
The movie follows a Texas college baseball team in 1980 on the last weekend before classes start. The team attends parties of various types, mocking one another with the relentlessness of brotherly hazing as they sweet-talk every woman they see, drink more beer than humanly possible, and just generally dick around. Nearly every scene dissects power dynamics and struggles within the American male sect, seen mostly through the eyes of incoming freshman pitcher Jake (played by Blake Jenner), a purposefully blank stand-in for the audience.
Within minutes of walking into the new house, Jake meets the two guides who'll lead his, and thusly our, way: Finnegan (Glen Powell) and Willoughby (Wyatt Russell). Finnegan's role is straightforward, and along with Jake, the pair become meta-commentators of what's really going on here. When they watch two guys play "bloody knuckles," they contemplate on why the dude-bros always need to compete; when Jake offers befuddlement on their third outfit change of the night, Finnegan compares it to breeding techniques in the animal kingdom.
Linklater's technique in the movie is almost Planet Earth–like, first showing the bros in their natural habitat and then offering commentary on its import. Willoughby, however, offers something else. As played by the Jesus-bearded Russell, he's the latest entry in the "philosophical stoner" trope, sauntering around in the background with enough drawn-out "maaaaaan's" to dream up Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski.
Willoughby's a senior transfer pitcher, new to the scene but with a world-wise confidence; he comes from California in his rusty van, bringing along VHS dubs of The Twilight Zone, Pink Floyd albums, the finest kush around, and a general aura of laid-back wisdom. Throughout his time on the screen, he has the mystique presence of a Zen master. When his teammates take girls to their rooms, he's miming pitches in a nude yoga pose while hypnotically chanting "Strike three." When Jake commiserates about the odd divide between pitchers and hitters, Willoughby advises him to embrace his inner weirdness. "When you do that, you bring who you are, never who they want," Willoughby says. "And that, my friend, is when it gets fun."
His biggest scene is likely getting his teammates bonked-out stoned in his room:
But everything changes—for Willoughby, and for the movie itself—at the team's players-only practice. Devo's "Whip It" soundtracks the joyous practice montage while Willoughby tosses batting practice. Then, out of nowhere, the team's coach shows up and tells Willoughby to get his stuff. The music cuts out to silence, and we only hear chirping birds and distant crack of batted balls. Willoughby takes one last slow look at his teammates, drops his mitt, and walks off the field. "Well, boys," he says doffing his hat, "here for a good time, not a long time, right?"
An inaudible chat with the coach ends with a handshake, and that's the last we'll see of Willoughby. A few scenes later, we get the story from Nesbit, the weirdo lefty pitcher: "He's 30 years old. And get this: Willoughby isn't his real name. The registrar's office discovered it. They were looking at some transfer hours that looked fishy, they'd been investigating it for a while and told coach this afternoon. Not only that, but they think he's been doing this at other colleges. Transferring, playing ball."
So, what are we to do with this character? Forrest Wickman at Slate takes a stab at the possibility that Willoughby, if not literally, is a "spiritual sequel" to D&C's Wooderson character (Matthew McConaughey). The ages line up—McConaughey was 24 during D&C and EWS!! takes place four years later, when Russell was 29 years old—and the ethos of the two sort of jive. Writes Wickman: "'Willoughby' is just an identity he made up so that could hang around with the kids who still admire him. In other words, just as Wooderson hangs around and smokes weed with kids who are several years younger because they worship him, 'Willoughby' does, too. That's the thing about college kids: He keeps getting older, but they stay the same age."
But he's not really Wooderson, so much as the equal and opposite reaction: Willoughby is watching everyone get older while trying to desperately cling the same age. In retrospect, it's telling that Willoughby tried to teach the guys about "the space between the notes" in the clip above using an album released in 1971 (Pink Floyd's Meddle) despite the film being set in 1980; it would've been a new discovery for him when he was actually in college. Any of us has stuff lingering on our playlist or DVD shelf that are there only because they happened to connect at the right time and place, for whatever reason; Willoughby brings those touchstones with him wherever he goes.
But in Willoughby, Linklater is offering something else: a warning about the false trappings of nostalgia. Dwelling on one's past—and, folks, smoking pot is very good (meaning: very bad) for doing this—is an activity fraught with land mines. There's that romantic partner you screwed things up with, that job you should've taken, that time you didn't say goodbye. But in addition to huge Sliding Doors–like timeline splinters, there are also those hazy auras of joy. The American college experience is a nostalgic siren song for many—certainly, anyone with a baseball scholarship—as it's a uniquely magical space of utter freedom without financial responsibility.
These perfect memories are, of course, bullshit. In an interview with Chuck Klosterman—quoted in an essay in D&C's Criterion release—Linklater talks about the falseness of nostalgia: "Everyone does this. It's like asking someone about Saturday morning cartoons: By some incredible coincidence, the only good cartoons anyone can ever remember are the ones that were on when they were six years old. It's a fucking cultural pathology. People always want to return to something they recall being pure. It's like when people say stuff like, 'Let's return to the 1950s. The moral were better. There was no teenage pregnancy.' People just make up shit that never existed."
We all have trappings of those times when things seemed right—or, at least, better—but almost without exception, they're typically false. That romance didn't work out for a number of reasons, that job you turned down would've sucked, and hanging out with that group was fun as hell, but you'd hate hanging out with them now. Even the autobiographical moments captured in EWS!! and D&C—the latter apparently so accurate that a trio of former classmates sued Linklater for defamation—are essentially fraudulent, real-life mixtapes with the boring parts stripped out.
But for the movie's baseball team, it's not tough to imagine a future where most fall for the same nostalgic trap as Willoughby. Besides Finnegan (a Kerouac reader who's constantly exploring), McReynolds (the mustachioed All-American who literally says "this is the greatest day of my life, until tomorrow") and potentially Jake (remains to be seen), nobody on the team has the self-awareness of, say, D&C's Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London) when he says, "If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself." The rest have a quickly closing four-, then three-, then two-, then one-year window of being on top of the social heap, and then, who the fuck knows?
Grown men hanging onto their sports-playing past is nothing new, whether it's Springsteen reminiscing about his hot-shot baseball playing friend on "Glory Days," Al Bundy's tale of scoring four touchdowns in one game at Polk High, or whatever your uncle was good at. It really doesn't have to be sports, or males, or even grown adults: Any one of us can become lodged in own memory for longer than we should. Willoughby is what happens when you can't get out.
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