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Waking Life

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Starring Wiley Wiggins

Written and directed by Richard Linklater

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

"I'm going to tell you about a dream I once had — I know that's, you know, when someone says that that's usually: you're in for a very boring next few minutes."

—Richard Linklater in Waking Life.

Try 100 minutes.

Inevitably, every new movement in animation is greeted with feverish hosannas by jaded critics and beady-eyed geekboys alike. Dazzled by the pretty colors and intoxicated by the surreal artscapes, genre fans rarely pause to wipe away the drool and consider the standard often applied to live action films: Is there (gasp) substance? Richard Linklater's experimental dream talkie Waking Life is the latest addition to the hall of fame of overrated art films that skate by the content police on the merits of their visual flair.

Shot on digital video and then reinterpreted by a team of 25 diverse animators, Waking Life is a dream-of-consciousness journey through the slumbering mind's eye of the most boring dreamer ever. Wiley Wiggins stars as a young man meandering aimlessly though an unusually verbose dreamlife, which consists of a seemingly endless stream of monologuing intellectuals discursively theorizing (or ranting) on such subjects as existentialism, free will, revolution, and, naturally, dreams. The animation, which effectively zags from style to style within individual scenes, is refreshingly dynamic and always vibrant and engaging, but oddly wasted on this parade of blowhards, who talk and talk and talk but only rarely say anything of consequence. There are interesting moments, but few come before the hour mark when Wiggins begins to come to terms with his dream reality, and by that time anything that breaks the monotony of one more sit-in with a blathering guru feels like a pleasing jolt. Sadly, none of the jolts translate into actual currency and even the film's best moments dissolve into further intellectual posturing.

In 1991 Linklater created a stir with his terrific indie debut Slacker, a similarly structured random crawl through the overeducated, self-obsessed, pop culture-saturated youth culture of Austin, Texas. A low-budget triumph, Slacker was, by necessity, visually very plain, observing its garrulous subjects in long takes and without comment, leaving the viewer to decide if the characters' often humorous theses, deconstructions, and conspiracies were profound or ridiculous and if their peculiar intellectual movement was revolutionary or simply masturbatory. In Waking Life, Linklater drops his casual approach — and most of the humor — and adoringly emphasizes the beatific inspiration of his pedagogues, daring the viewer to not be moved by their alleged profundity. Despite its aesthetic appeal, watching Waking Life is like being caught in a one-way conversation with the one guy/gal at the party everyone tries to avoid in fear of receiving yet another pointless dissertation to which the intelligible response can be, "So what?"

Many of the characters from Slacker pop up again in Waking Life, as do Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, reprising their roles from Linklater's wonderful 1995 romance Before Sunrise. While the Slacker connection makes good sense — after all, the pot- and mind-addled denizens of that film seem to be the intended audience of this one — the assimilation of Sunrise's Jesse and Celine is gratuitous, sucking the spark out of their previously impetuous and flirtatious chemistry as they dully revisit old conversations, only this time without the sexual tension that made them interesting in the first place. Also making brief appearances are Steven Soderbergh, Adam Goldberg and Nicky Katt.

Perhaps Waking Life's greatest failure, ironically, is its obliviousness to the potential synergy of its style and subject matter. Animation has traditionally been a rule-breaking genre, unconstrained by physical limitations, and so too are dreams unfettered by physics and rationality. And, yet, with the exception of a few minor flourishes, Linklater's movie is, surprisingly, just people sitting around talking, capitalizing on little of the visceral promise of either animation or dreams. As one angry young philosopher mutters in the film, "We're all theory and no action," perfectly illustrating the sad impotence of this film, which, for all its circumlocution, has nothing to do with actual dreaming short of lulling the viewer into a sound sleep.

*          *          *

There's no doubting that Waking Life is a great-looking piece of physical art, and on Fox's DVD release it is given a terrific anamorphic presentation (1.85:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. As this film will most likely appeal to genre collectors, it also sports several high-quality extra features, including two audio commentary tracks; one with Linklater, Wiggins, producer Tommy Palotta and art director Bob Sabiston and the other featuring the 25 animators remarking on their contributions. There is also a full-length text commentary which offers background info and expands on some of the ideas within the film. "The Waking Life Studio" contains a treasure trove of fan featurettes, including the trailer, an EPK featurette (4:21), an "Animation Scrap Heap" of 19 deleted sequences (including a brief "All your base are belong to us" gag), selected takes from the pre-animated live action footage (12:00), "Snack and Drink" by Bob Sabiston (3:40), a tutorial on the animation software used to create the film's look (20:21), an early animation test (2:48), and the trailer for the upcoming Fox film The Banger Sisters, which has nothing to do with Waking Life and looks perfectly dreadful.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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