If you're going to make a movie about Texas college baseball jocks in 1980 (especially jocks on the most successful team on campus), you're obliged to do something to let the audience know WHY those players are the most gentle, open-minded college jocks they have ever, ever seen. It can't just go unexplained, or it beggars belief. The movie is not intended to be a farce, quite clearly.
Even the two most aggressive guys (the great batter and the manic pitcher) are ultimately adorably harmless. This is not how it works. Their conflict at a practice without coaches should end in a fistfight when the manic pitcher won't shut up after getting beat. You don't run your mouth at a teammate after getting hit on. The manic pitcher's outburst in the bar should also be far, far uglier, and it should end in a real fight. And the stuff that comes out of their mouths most of the time should be filthy as hell. I am NOT objecting to "gentle comedy" as a genre. I'm objecting to the total lack of appropriate set-up in this one, and the ensuing unbelievability.
And I'm not faulting the characters for being horny, drunk 21 year olds (played by mostly 30 year olds, for putatively some good reason, but really because 21 year old actors wouldn't be able to handle the house of cards Linklater has set up here). I don't think that young men are monsters for getting laid and drinking on a free weekend before college. (There are complaints about this movie from some corners of the internet that have "liberal puritan double-standard" written all over them. I am not coming from that corner.) But having played college sports myself, and known other college athletes at the time and since, this is the LEAST awful group of 16 college jocks that I can possibly imagine, and the movie is set in 1980 Texas. They may as well be unicorns.
I understand that this is supposed to be a gentle, philosophical comedy, and I have no problem with that in theory. I would definitely watch a movie where a given collection of jocks are great human beings, just out of the sheer creative audacity of seeing where that goes, and the things you can do with genres that depict an idealized world. But I don't want to watch idealized college athletes (or any other group) unless I have some damn reason to know why there aren't horrible human beings in that mix of 16 guys. The answer can't just be "because the genre is gentle, thoughtful comedy". Give me something with a piece of verisimilitude that I can hang onto. 16 golfers at Brown in 2016 have worse people among them than this.
So, oddly akin to The Revenant or Boyhood, the movie doesn't work as realism, nor does it work as something heightened; on top of that it has 1-dimensional characters. I don't want to see Acclaimed Director, the movie. Every movie must stand or fall on its own.
ULTIMATELY MORE IMPORTANTLY, this weekend-before-college movie (like any slice-of-life type of movie) will sink or swim on the quality of the bits, the moments, the character sketches. If each scene or moment is golden, all is forgiven, and it lives on in the way that The Big Sleep or Shortcuts or Day for Night or The Big Lebowski are great movies. In those, perfect scene-by-scene charm wins the day. Truth through Beauty.
But in this particular movie, some of the bits, scenes, characters etc. are very good, while others are wholly bland, vague and threadbare. Could 'philosophizing jocks' get it right some times, and wrong some times, and just have some sophomoric marijuana ideas sometimes- sure, yes, why not? BUT EACH one of those scenes of 'philosophizing jocks' has to be somehow really interesting without feeling overly polished, or phony, or done to death, or otherwise uncharming. It's a pure fancy-footwork kind of storytelling art. And half of the bits/scenes in this movie have two left feet.
This is the second movie in a row from Linklater that is not about real life or real people but purports to be, while using facile characters and after-lunch philosophizing. The first, Boyhood, was a full-throttle melodrama with a grand gimmick. This one plays one sport with the equipment of another: College Hump-or-Die movie rules, but with handmade character comedy gear. If you don't see this, let me ask you one question: WHAT is it that makes the main character Jake a SPECIFIC person who hits it off with Beverly, another specific person, besides the genre fulfillment of 'the two sensitive people find each other'??
Nothing. Nothing but Blake Jenner and Zoey Deutch saying the lines with talent. Can you say that about Say Anything, or are those two characters specific as hell, and therefore a response to the High School Hump-or-Die movies, and not just a mutant version of one? Heck, college farce Animal House, the ultimate Hump-or-Die movie, has more to say than this movie does.
I'm now positive that Linklater is one director when working with actor/writers Hawke and Delpy, and quite another when he's not.