Consistently fascinating and entertaining, which is a coup for a plotless film in which the primary characters change every scene. The nadir of this gimmick is early in the film, when one of the vignettes relies too much on perturbing incident rather than the meandering pseudo-philosophy conversations that make up the rest of the film. Not to worry, as the film makes up for it with hilarious moments like a woman selling Madonna's Pap smear, a guy living in a room full of televisions, and an old man teaching a burglar about the merits of anarchism. And there's a kind of understated sadness to these aimless people, like the kids that steal Pepsis to sell to people, or the Kennedy-assassination theorist who immediately starts talking about Jack Ruby's dog when someone asks how he is. By the end, Slacker has turned into a sort of "portrait of a city film", in this case Dallas, Texas; one feels like they have the complete feel of the weirdest corners of a city they've been to not once.
Linklater is really about a lot of philosophical conversation - or just interesting conversation such as talking about a Madonna pap smear - and he does little interesting technically. One of the few shots in this film which I found to be great was a long take in which the camera tracks back from the scene of a crime - an old lady being hit by a car - and then pans left to transition to the next character in his home. Sadly this is the repetition in the film that makes it feel so monotonous. It transitions between "episodes" by introducing characters at the end of each episode that pretty much just pass by. And I don't believe we come back to any characters in the film once their "episode" is done.
I do enjoy the conversations in the film, I really do, but they don't really make up for the fact that this film has pretty terrible structure. While structure isn't necessary in a film, it can act as a guide for a good story. Characterization might help as well, rather than just conversations about life and such. Linklater seems more fit to write essays than to make films with movies such as this and Waking Life.
If you want to get into deep thought this is a good film for you to watch, but if you want entertainment and story, look elsewhere.
This movie, which wasn't actually Linklater's first but is the earliest one anyone seems to know about, is the first in his ongoing series of cinematic experiments with time. The Before trilogy is all about checking in with two characters on particular days years apart from each other; Boyhood follows one character for 12 years. Here, Linklater's experiment went in the opposite direction from that of Boyhood: rather than follow one character for a long time, he follows dozens and dozens of characters for a few minutes each over the course of a single day in Austin, Texas in 1990 or 1991. Some of them do interesting or bizarre things: a young man runs his mother over in a car and then has some sort of bizarre ceremony in his house; another guy is trying to watch ten TVs at once; an old man finds someone trying to rob his house and takes him out for a pleasant walk to talk about politics. Other people are just going about a fairly normal day: a woman walks to a coffee shop; some kids play in the woods; a young woman argues with her boyfriend. No matter what's going on, though, the film is never boring; most of the characters are oddballs or weirdos of some sort, though not outlandishly so.
It's a somewhat difficult film to evaluate in conventional terms, since it doesn't really concern itself with a narrative. I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it, and its portrayal of college town life was pretty convincing to me. The Austin portrayed in this film reminded me a bit of Carrboro, North Carolina, where I live now; watching the movie almost makes me want to go make my own version of Slacker about the people living here. I really appreciated how smoothly Linklater's direction transitions us from one little story to the next. Purely from an entertainment perspective, it's nice to know that if you don't like one story or character, it'll be replaced by something else soon. The movie is funny and relaxed; it's the sort of movie I imagine would be easy to rewatch in later years. It's interesting, and kind of inspiring, how Linklater's totally naturalistic, low-key approach to filmmaking, which tends to make me think, "Hmm, I could do that!," still yields such fascinating results. If you're at all interested in Linklater, Austin, or the 90s in general, I definitely recommend Slacker.