Anyone who's ever dreamed they were awake will appreciate the neither/nor netherworld of Waking Life, Richard Linklater's looney-toon lecture on such philosophical chestnuts as the free will/determinism debate. Linklater, who first introduced us to the cosmic slop of his thought processes 10 years ago with Slacker (that movie's opening line, delivered by Linklater himself: "I just had the weirdest dream"), is American cinema's perpetual grad student, wrestling with issues most of us abandoned long ago. And with Waking Life, he's found the perfect setting for his ontological musings: that curious limbo between being asleep and being awake. He's also found the perfect way to represent that setting: animation. Linklater shot Waking Life on digital video, then turned it over to a team of computer-graphic artists who "painted" the images, making them their own. The result: real life rendered as a dream.
Or vice versa. We're never sure whether the Linklater stand-in who literally floats through Waking Life is asleep or awake. Nor is he, apparently. But along the way, he's confronted with an assortment of blabbermouths (some known to us, most not, some brilliant, most not) who share their thoughts on existentialism, evolution and quantum mechanics, among many other things. I won't say the movie doesn't finally wear you down, like some guy who's cornered you at the far end of the bar and won't let you go until he's told you virtually everything that's ever happened to him. But before that, it's often mesmerizing ' a liquid-sky rendition of a young man's stream of consciousness. (Or is it unconsciousness?) As if illustrating Brownian motion, the images waver, pulsate. And various parts of the picture plane slide toward and away from one another. Imagine the whole world turned into a paint-by-numbers kaleidoscope.
Actually, Waking Life is surprisingly tame and consistent, given that more than 30 artists had their way with it. There are daubs of surrealism, as when a wisp of cigarette smoke morphs into a hypodermic needle. And the colors are wonderfully chosen. But this is no Yellow Submarine, where space and time are continually up for grabs. Linklater prefers to hold his protagonist in a state of suspended (albeit constantly fluctuating) animation, the better to impart the movie's pearls of wisdom. And if those pearls seem less shiny than they did in Slacker and Before Sunrise, it may be because here they're encased in the shell of the movie's dreamy conceit. Slacker had its blabbermouths, but it was about something: the random chaos of life. Beyond Sunrise had its pair of blabbermouths as well (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke briefly reprise their roles in Waking Life), but there the blabbing was like a form of verbal foreplay.
Here, the blabbing seems like...blabbing. Maybe the movie's point is that there is no point. If so, I would have appreciated a little more humor Ã la Slacker, a sense that nobody really thinks they're about to crack the cosmic egg. Where's Madonna's pap smear when you need it?