When I think of Paul Thomas Anderson, chill hangout vibes aren’t what generally comes to mind. More like the cocaine-tinged tragic-comic edginess of porno drama Boogie Nights, or the surreal operatic swells of the capitalism-as-apocalypse period piece There Will Be Blood.
But at the tail end of 2021 the director gave us what we (possibly) needed most of all: a laid-back period comedy-drama without a single superhero, and nary an explosion in sight. Just hanging with a bunch of young folks enjoying some chill vibes.
When you need to destress, there’s not much better than putting on a movie populated by a cast of characters you just want to hang out with, whether because they’re likeable or just interesting. These are movies that aren’t particularly plot-driven.
It’s not that nothing happens in them (although that’s nearly true in a couple of cases), but that’s it is the characters driving them forward, rather than story elements pulling them along — as though a filmmaker took a handful of interesting characters to a compelling location and left them to run wild. Sometimes the results are philosophical, sometimes poignant, and sometimes deeply wacky.
Lost in Translation (2003)
A declining American movie star in the midst of a midlife crisis and a young grad student facing a similarly uncertain future meet while staying at an upscale hotel in Tokyo. Things happen, but there’s not much more to the plot than the two of them exploring Tokyo, which acts as a sort of liminal space between their pasts and futures. After The Virgin Suicides, it’s the movie that cemented director Sofia Coppola’s spot in the filmmaker pantheon.
Soul Food (1997)
There’s drama, of course, but at the heart of Soul Food is the Black family that gathers together each Sunday, no matter what, to have dinner. One of the keys to the success of a great hang-out film is that we wind up enjoying the time spent with its characters. And who’d turn down an invitation to a dinner that includes Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, and Mekhi Phifer?
Before Sunrise (1995)
Much of Richard Linklater’s filmography could (and will) fit here, but the movies of the Sunrise trilogy are probably the purest example of his style — with no other main characters to speak of, they’re all just scenes of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke chatting and developing their relationship. That’s not easy to pull off, and many movies with similar ambitions come across as pretentious and dull. Here, the sharp writing, strong performances, and collaborative nature of the production resulted in something deeply engrossing.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Some of the most iconic faces of the ‘80s (aka the “Brat Pack”) get a largely unsupervised detention together on a Saturday. Each is there for a different reason, and each represents a different clique — it’s all a little on-the-nose, but the film does lean toward a kind of emotional honesty, and it’s hard not to be drawn into their insular world.
Kevin Smith has never topped his first feature, which he made by maxing out his credit cards and filming at the convenience store where he was working at the time. The movie’s blend of cinéma vérité style with blowjob jokes and Star Wars references was a thunderstroke for independent cinema, creating a brief, but blissful, window of time during which character-based, dialogue-heavy movies could be marketed outside the arthouse crowd.
Though there are a couple of not-strictly-necessary subplots, the core of Barbershop is the conversations that happen within the title establishment on what might turn out to be one of its final days (its been sold to a loan shark who plans to turn it into a strip club). Everything from sex, to relationships, to OJ and civil rights is on the agenda, and the cast of lively and entertaining characters make it a fun place to spend time.
Back to Richard Linklater, who broke through with this indie hit that follows a large ensemble of twenty-somethings on one day in the hipster haven of Austin (before it was Austin). Linklater lets the conversations wander by following one group of people until they run into another, and then proceeding to see what they’re up to for a while.
It’s a simple, clever way to bring in a multiple stories and bits of local colour without troubling with a minor detail like a “plot.” The vibe here isn’t so much one set of characters that you want to hang with all day; it’s more that you’re hanging with the cameraperson interacting with a bunch of interesting people. It’s definitely a vibe.
American Graffiti (1973)
It’s fun to imagine an alternate timeline in which George Lucas’ career hadn’t been swallowed by Star Wars sequels — one in which American Graffiti had been the template, rather than the more lucrative space operas. Here, he brings an understated energy to the story of a bunch car-loving high school grads on the cusp of adulthood, enjoying a night of freedom in 1962. PTA cited this one as a chief inspiration for Licorice Pizza, and that totally tracks.
Harold and Maude (1971)
Another noted inspiration for Licorice Pizza, Harold and Maude is a cross-generational romance of a whole different magnitude. Depressed, apathetic teenager Harold meets and befriends a free-spirited, gives-no-fucks septuagenarian named Maude.
The two go off on low-key adventures (if you can call them that — they meet while separately crashing the funeral of someone neither of them knows, and most of the stuff they do together is on that level: uprooting a tree from a park to replant it in a forest; stealing a car only to take it for a joyride) and eventually get physically romantic.
The message of the movie is about appreciating every day for the weirdness it has to offer you; if Maude is sort of a Manic Pixie Dream Grandma, you can easily excuse it.
After getting fired on a Friday, Craig Jones (Ice Cube) and his best friend Smokey (Chris Tucker) get high on marijuana that they were meant to sell, setting them off on a series of usually funny, usually low-stakes adventures in the movie that gave us “Bye, Felicia”.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Last Richard Linklater movie, I promise. Though I could certainly include Waking Life and Everybody Wants Some.
Drinking Buddies (2013)
Mumblecore auteur Joe Swanberg made a move into something a bit more like the mainstream with Drinking Buddies, starring Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as co-workers at a low-stress craft brewery. There’s some relationship drama, but, it’s also a movie about how, for the two leads and their friends (including Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingstone, and Jason Sudeikis), being drinking buddies is a perfectly reasonable place for a relationship to land.
There’s a bit more of a plot here than in some of the other hangout movies under discussion, but Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and her bestie Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) are very nearly forces of nature: it wouldn’t take a particularly elaborate set-up to set them entertainingly in motion. Here, it’s the revelation that trans sex worker Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp has been cheating on her, sending the two off for a series of minor adventures during the holiday season in L.A.
A Friday night hookup turns, unexpectedly, into a weekend hang that grows more interesting as the conversation gets deeper. The vibe is a bit Before Sunrise, though this one is all about what comes after the sex.
We Anderson’s Rushmore is the movie the gifted us the later-career Bill Murray we’ve been enjoying ever since: funny and chill, but slightly sad in a way that gives those other attributes an emotional resonance. Here, he plays Herman Blume, a disillusioned parent who hates his own kids, but develops a friendship with Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer.
Empire Records (1995)
There are moments that fall flat, but time has been relatively kind to Empire Records — its cast includes a virtual who’s who of up-and-coming stars of the mid-’90s (some of whom went on to bigger things, others not so much) running a failing record store during the course of a single day. The soundtrack, including Gin Blossoms, Cranberries, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Better Than Ezra, and others hitmakers of the era, helps to make the movie a fun time capsule.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Sofia Coppola cleverly transposed the tropes of the hang-out movie to 18th century France, eschewing the typical high-stakes melodrama of the period film genre in favour of the story of a teenager trying to carve out a place for herself in the only life she’s ever known, not realising (until it’s too late) that the larger world is closing in.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen brothers gave us film’s all-time great slacker character in Jeff Bridges’ Dude. A case of mistaken identity complicates his life, but nothing’s really going to change his essential nature.
My Dinner With André (1981)
What better hangout movie to end on than one that is literally nothing more than hanging out with two friends as they have dinner and talk — about theatre, life, about philosophy, about ? This 1981 movie sounds like an arthouse chore, but it is endlessly fascinating — Wallace Shawn, André Gregory, and director Louis Malle keep you wishing for just one more course.