It’s a measure of how much and how fast our world has shifted of late that Richard Linklater‘s latest philosophical gabfest plays like nostalgia for a time — eons ago, five weeks ago — when all we had to worry about, aside from our mutual funds and our Palm Pilots and whether Gary Condit would ever go away, was the meaning of our cushioned lives. If you’re among the newly jittery who feel they‘ve ingested enough real-life drama to last a lifetime, Waking Life — a film almost completely lacking in event — will likely bring some relief, even though, like most of Linklater’s movies, it mulls the big questions of life, death and the packaging of the common burrito.
Waking Life is cast as a dream, though it‘s by no means the lurid, fevered fantasy that movie dreamscapes typically deploy to liberate the id from rational thought. If anything, Linklater’s conceit is the kind of dream you wake up from wondering how the hell you managed to come up with a script more cogent and articulate than anything you could compose when awake — a dream that could function as a blueprint for a movie. More precisely, this movie offers itself as a series of concentric dreams, as dreamed by Wiley Wiggins, late of Dazed and Confused, who serves as a kind of shock absorber for a host of motor-mouthed ontologists of the human spirit. Linklater‘s enormous ensemble is packed with the usual bunch of do-nothing post-boomers, plus a few fresh wackos, and even some learned elders at whose feet the director has studied. Some you’ll recognize from Linklater‘s earlier films, or as mildly famous faces of independent film. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who co-starred in the endlessly unfulfilled love story Before Sunrise, discuss the true meaning of reincarnation while lolling around in bed, while Adam Goldberg and Nicky Katt, the compulsive bickerers from Dazed and Confused, agitate for freedom from “the corporate slave state.” Inevitably, Speed Levitch, the tour guide famous for prattling up and down Manhattan in Bennett Miller’s documentary The Cruise, shows up to rhapsodize at 20 words a nanosecond about “salsa dancing with my own confusion.” Steven Soderbergh, grinning madly, tells of a droll encounter between Louis Malle and Billy Wilder that doubles as a wry prediction of how much box office Waking Life can expect to drum up. Linklater himself makes a brief appearance as the film opens, to launch Wiley into his dream, and at the end to urge the dreamer to wake up while he still can.
There‘s nothing especially profound about this disjointed, willfully digressive narrative. No one who’s taken Philosophy 101 will be shocked to hear that the existentialists, having discovered that life is what you make of it, were a cheerier crew than one might expect; that our lives, and our stories, are ours to create; that time and reality are the trickiest of concepts, and so on. By any intellectual measure, Waking Life is a wank, though as one who dissipated most of my graduate-school years sitting around yakking about life, love and just about anything that would get in the way of writing my dissertation, I‘ll gladly claim it as my kind of wank — if only it didn’t go on so long. Ninety-seven minutes of existential chat is probably more than even Sartre could stomach.
Luckily, Linklater has for once also given us something lovely to look at. The director drafted a fleet of cutting-edge animation artists (among them Wiggins himself) to computer-paint over the live-action footage he‘d shot in digital video. The images bounce gently up and down, which gives you the sense of watching the movie from a waterbed, and which replicates the gently woozy instability of the dream. Individual artists were assigned their own characters and given free rein — characters and locations shift on a dime from naturalistic to baroque — with the result that the movie’s formal imagination surpasses and redeems the banal tedium of some of the dialogue. When a despairing street philosopher tells us that “The time has come to project my own inadequacies and dissatisfactions into the sociopolitical and scientific schemes,” it‘s downright fun watching him set fire to himself. Just as it’s a relief to see the face of indie filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, following a rambling speech about film theorist Andre Bazin, morph — with a symbolism one can only guess at — into a cloud. When he finally wakes up, the dreamer marvels, “It‘s like I’m being prepared for something,” and takes flight over the rooftops like some loony Mary Poppins. What this all amounts to I have no idea. Given the choice, though, I‘d rather look at Linklater’s whimsy than listen to it.