Waking Life

Movie Review #854: Even where it doesn’t make sense, the animation in this avant-garde is beautiful and unconventional.

★★★
By Alexander Diminiano
waking_life

Animation, Drama
Rated R (contains profanity, violence)
99 minutes

Richard Linklater is one of American cinema’s most extravagant chefs, preparing appetizingly different cuisines to the table every time he makes a movie. “Waking Life” may take some warming up to, but in the end, it’s a film we can only be glad we tried, and in fact, we’d take seconds in a heartbeat.

This is Linklater’s seventh film as director, sixth film as writer, and first time working on an animated movie. Though it defies all ground rules and stereotypes that have been laid down for animated movies. I highly doubt kids would get this movie, much less enjoy it. Some adults might not, either. It’s an abstract film for deep thinkers, acting in words, not actions. The entire story takes place in a dream, and the world Linklater has crafted feels entirely like a dream. Every conversation seems impossible, as we watch every kind of mind delve into the most intellectual, philosophical conversations with the lead character, who is trying to wake up from the dream he is experiencing. The animation, created by Bob Sabiston, delivers sensations of dizziness and double-vision to its viewer. There isn’t a moment in this film that isn’t absolutely surreal.

The first thirty minutes of “Waking Life” are a test to the audience. It’s almost as if, at this point, Linklater is asking us how willing we are to keep watching the film. The initial arguments are quick, one-sided lectures, rather than intellectual conversations. Granted, the arguments made about the nature of reality and existentialism sound genius, but in order to process exactly what’s being explained in these seeming lectures, the pause button becomes mandatory after each sentence.

“Waking Life” is so visually arresting, and I don’t doubt that the animation was all that kept me from pulling away after the opening third. What follows is an interesting (and increasingly so) exploration of such ideas as the nature of dreams and consciousness, as well as the meaning of life. These are now two-sided conversations that pair philosophical concepts with their presence in life itself. In other words, they’re now too engaging to pull away from.

“Waking Life” sets up in a dream world from within the mind of Richard Linklater. It’s his “8 1/2”. The resemblance between Wiley Wiggins’s character and Linklater himself is quite thinly veiled. He seems to play with this idea, by bringing back his “Before Sunrise” couple, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), for a philosophical conversation. Given that “Before Sunrise” was composed entirely of such discussions, it seems convincing.**

This is a well-conceived and well-made film, but certainly not perfect. Perhaps it could have been, had there been more clarity in the opening dissertations. But what makes it such a great film, by any standards, is its uniqueness and its execution, both of which are spectacular. “Waking Life” may not be a masterpiece, but it’s close enough.

**According to the narrative in “Before Sunset”, set in 2004, Céline and Jesse had not encountered each other since the events in “Before Sunrise”, set in 1995. “Waking Life” is set in 2001. Ergo, the conversation between Céline and Jesse never actually happened in reality. This is further proof that Wiggins’s character is in a dream before the character even realizes he is dreaming.

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