It happens to most of us. You're sitting at a party, minding your own business when a stranger comes along toting a beer and wants to sit next to you and chat. The minutes pass by, soon hours, and the stranger gets more and more intoxicated. He keeps rambling on about life and our place in it. Getting more and more abstract as he struggles to find a light at the end of his narrowing tunnel. You sit patiently and respectfully, hoping it all will pay off eventually. Yet it never does. That is what it's like to sit through Richard Linklater's animated poem to philosophy, "Waking Life" (IMDb listing).
The first half of the Linklater double whammy this fall (his other film, the stage play-based "Tape," starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, opens in November), "Waking Life" tells the story of a wandering soul (Wiley Wiggins, "Dazed And Confused") who cannot seem to snap out of his dream state. He wanders from person to person in his surreal world, hoping to catch some sort of clue to why he can't wake up and what part his dreams play in his waking life. Meeting all sorts of characters who try to implement some higher thinking into the dreamer, they each hold a monologue of beliefs on why we dream, and what secrets that nocturnal mind holds that gives us a clue to why we exist.
"Waking Life" uses a process called "interpolated rotoscoping" to bring its story to life. Shot in digital video in 1999, "Life" spent the next year-and-a-half with more than 30 artists painting each frame of the film with a computer (each minute of screen time required 250 hours of animation). The final effect being somewhere in between a really bitchin' Ralph Bakshi film and the psychedelic imagery of Alan Parker's "The Wall."
I couldn't see another way Linklater could tell this story but through the animation. A bizarre journey through one man's contemplative thoughts, "Waking Life" is far from the standard entertainment Linklater tried on for size with his last film, the flaccid "The Newton Boys." The existential world seems to be where Linklater's heart lies, and this film is nothing but a labor of love for the director who has covered this ground of metaphysical questioning before in his "Before Sunrise" and the unwatchable "subUrbia." Yet this time, Linklater doesn't have to completely rely on actors to sell his thoughts. Through the intricate animation, the film is free to roam wherever the character's thoughts take it, the effect being both dreamlike and liberating to the story (or lack thereof).
The animation is the picture's biggest accomplishment. They take yawn-inducing ideas that should've remained in a college lecture room and breathe life into them. However, the animation can only take you so far when the film starts to lose track of itself and wanders into the deadly rambling zone. It's not so much that "Waking Life" would appeal only to intellectuals, though any interest in philosophy would help in the long run, but more that the film's aimless ideas seem to only be turning Linklater on. He tries to inject some humor into the proceedings, but it isn't enough to keep "Waking Life" engaging. He is taking the most unenthusiastic idea for a filmpeople endlessly rambling about ideas without answersand trying to spruce it up with colors and style. And that works, for about half of the film. By the end, the wonders of the artwork have worn off and all you can do is wait patently for the film to realize it peaked a long time ago.
To truly get the most out of "Waking Life" you have to appreciate philosophical debate about the meaning of dreams and how they figure into existence. That or if you have some leftover acid tucked away in a Silly Putty egg from last summer's "Laser Floyd" extravaganza. Either way, you're set.
Filmfodder Grade: C