America prides itself on being a land of hardworking go-getters, ready to make good on the promise of that coveted Dream with a little fortitude, gumption, and inventive spirit. Yet at the movies, it’s often the type B losers who win our hearts: John Wayne may be what we want to be, but Benjamin Braddock is closer to who we are. Slacking is the flip side of enterprise, and a great American tradition in its own right — no wonder so many on screen slackers end up culturally outlasting their squarer, more serious peers. Here are the top 10 movies that convey the many, subtle shades of slackerdom, in all its glory.
10. Stranger Than Paradise
This hipster slacker road film and the deadpan comedy of apathy and alienation put independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch on the map. Three restless, wandering slackers seek a cure for their boredom from Manhattan to Cleveland to Florida. Eszter Balint is wonderful as a Hungarian Screamin’ Jay Hawkins fan and shoplifter adjusting to “The New World,” but the movie’s soul is musician John Lurie as Willie, her scheming loser of a cousin.
9. Shadows (1959)
Actor and director John Cassavetes was a trailblazer in so many ways — as one of the first post-war independent narrative filmmakers, as an experimenter of film form and improvisation, and as a documenter of unconventional lives fighting to live in all their awkward glory. Shadows, Cassavetes’ first film, portrays the racially and socially marginalized lives of New York City’s quasi-beatnik jazz-digging bohemians, most notably Ben (Ben Carruthers), the constantly drifting bi-racial hipster trying to find meaning in his rambling existence.
8. Clerks (1994)
Kevin Smith’s debut film, Clerks, was a definite product of the golden age of Generation X slackerdom, a no-budget black and white comedy about convenience and video store clerks who laze their way through go-nowhere jobs, cheating girlfriends, and irritating patrons. Penn and Teller-like duo Jay and Silent Bob are the movie’s likable losers, but it’s video store layabout Randal (Jeff Anderson) who truly steals the show with his Star Wars philosophies and customer-baiting antics. One such victim: “Cute cat. What’s his name?” Randal: “Annoying customer.”
7. Ghost World (2001)
Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World brings Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel to life and in the process, portrays one of the great dilemmas of a slacker’s existence: How to grow up without conforming. Enid (Thora Birch) keeps true to her kitsch-loving, misanthropic ways even as high school graduation thrusts her into the realities of adulthood– jobs, relationships, and the frowning maturity of best friend Rebecca. And even though she finds a kindred spirit in older misfit record collector Seymour, he’s also a constant reminder of what she might become.
6. Kicking and Screaming (1995)
Ah, the post-collegiate slacker — the most common of the breed. Noah Baumbach’s hilarious debut comedy, Kicking and Screaming, is probably the most spot-on depiction of this jaded, horny, overeducated type. Like so many in the genre, K & S is an ensemble piece, but the cast’s truest representative is go-to Gen X actor Eric Stoltz as Chet, the gang’s bartender and living warning who’s now in his tenth year of college: “Somehow I experienced my time as a postponement of my life. Eventually I just realized this is my life.”
5. Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Jack Nicholson built a superstar acting career on iconic roles usually loony ( One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Carnal Knowledge , Chinatown ), but it’s his turn as Bobby Dupea, a high society drop-out and former child prodigy in Five Easy Pieces that’s most funny, moving, and surprising. Bobby embodies the spirit of his restless times by rebelling, spiting his privilege for a blue collar oil rigging job and a careless relationship. Before returning to his family to make amends, his worldview can be summed up in his angry insult toward a waitress: “I want you to hold it between your knees.”
4. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Nobody did more to give voice to late 20th Century slackers than director Richard Linklater, who began his career with the appropriately titled Slacker, a 1991 walkabout through Austin’s disillusioned hipster community. Sophomore effort Dazed takes a time machine back to 1976, Gen X’s coming of age. The whole cast — including then-unknowns Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, and Parker Posey — are slackers, really, but the most representative example is Slater (Rory Cochrane). A squinty-eyed stoner partial to conspiracy theories and aliens, his zen even comes through in salutations: “Fixin’ to be a whole lot better, man.”
3. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Before he became the one of the premiere actors of his generation, Sean Penn was Jeff Spicoli, the stoned surfer dude of Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s quintessential ’80s teen movie. Needing only “tasty waves and a cool buzz” to achieve happiness, Spicoli consistently tortures history teacher Mr. Hand with his space cadet antics, at one point ordering a pizza in the middle of class. In his case Hand’s repeated admonishment — “What are you people, on dope?” — is perfectly accurate.
2. The Graduate (1967)
Poor Benjamin Braddock. A recent college graduate with no idea of what to do with himself– despite a family friend’s unbidden advice to pursue “Plastics!”– Ben, played by then newcomer, Dustin Hoffman, is thrown into confusion when seduced by Mrs. Robinson, the mother of love interest Elaine. Accompanied by the melancholic sounds of Simon & Garfunkel, Benjamin’s comedic adventures of sex and discovery struck a chord with an entire generation of similarly aimless, jaded young men and became one of the era’s most groundbreaking icons.
1. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen Brothers’ surreal kidnapping comedy — an instant cult classic upon release — centers on a ’60s Baby Boom slacker facing middle age during the Gulf War and still, well, slacking. Jeff Bridges plays Lebowski, aka The Dude: a weed-smoking, Eagles-hating, White Russian-slurping bowling alley fixture too stoned to find the world of millionaires, Vietnam vets, German nihilists, performance artists, and pornographers with whom he’s gotten himself involved anything but normal. E.g.: When a bowling ace named Jesus threatens him with some foul words his Dudeness can only retort: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
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