Waking Life

2001, Movie, R, 97 mins


The flipside of THE MATRIX in the "Are We Awake, or Is Life Just a Dream?" discussion, this animated treatise from SLACKER-generation spokesperson Richard Linklater is all talk and no action. Never, however, has pedantic navel-gazing been so beautifully drawn. A collection of interconnected vignettes shot as live-action digital-video footage which is then "fed into" computer-animation software (a modern version of the "rotoscoping" developed by Max and Dave Fleischer in the 1910s for their legendary "Koko the Clown" and "Betty Boop" cartoon series), Linklater's latest film is an audacious, ambitious undertaking. Structured as an apparent series of dreams-within-dreams, the fairly linear narrative follows an unnamed slacker (voice of Wiley Wiggins) as he goes from place to place in a large city, meeting and speaking with friends, professor-types and the occasional stranger. There's a surreal yet consistent logic to it, which is the film's biggest accomplishment. Early on, our protagonist hitches a ride with an eccentric in a boat-shaped car; it's a dreamlike image, and yet we've all seen boat-cars and cow-cars and cars covered with grass in wacky-people news items. And later, our hero getting hit by a (different) car before he "wakes up" has delightfully Twilight Zone-ish connotations. Yet most of the film consists of talking heads that no amount of colorfully animated, lava-lamp-like undulations can make less static. Worse, their soliloquies about the nature of reality often have the self-satisfied, haranguing quality of cocktail-party bores, the kind that Woody Allen movies make fun of. "Take the problem of free will," pontificates one. Please, let's not. Slowing things even further is the fact that our hero is a passive, barely verbal listener, something that could be attributed, one supposes, to the spectator nature of dreams. But if we're using dream criteria as a rationale, then the lack of sexual imagery is puzzling. If you're a precocious high-schooler, or perhaps a 20-year-old taking that first philosophy course, these monologues could well serve as thought-provoking introductions to Those Big Cosmic Questions. Otherwise, it'll all sound a lot like the stoned ramblings of grad students — or the protagonists of Linklater's BEFORE SUNRISE. (Indeed, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy provide the voices for two characters who bear a close resemblance to their star-crossed students from that film.) Linklater himself supplies the voice for a sum-up character at the end, where the self-congratulatory attitude of the director talking to himself (as if his well-trod thoughts were brilliantly original) finally takes this masturbatory epic from dull to insufferable. leave a comment --Frank Lovece

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