Every director will eventually let you down. No matter how much you love their work or how ambitious and skilled they are, they will let you down. Nearly every director has at least one film that is either unbearable or that simply buckles under the weight of itself. “Public Enemies,” “1941,” “Jack,” even the masters have their worst films. Well, except for maybe Paul Thomas Anderson and Darren Aranofsky. So far. It’s going to really hurt when those guys finally make a movie that stinks.
My point is that “Waking Life” is simply not a good movie. And this stings just a little.
I’ll say this much, “Waking Life” is at the very least an ambitious and creatively unique piece of filmmaking. Richard Linklater swings for the fences with what he’s going for and on that front I have to give the guy as much credit as possible. I don’t know many directors who would attempt something like this, so points as always for being bold.
So what is “Waking Life”? It’s a lucid dream given physical form. It’s a fluid and surreal journey through a young man’s (Wiley Wiggins) subconscious. We’re never actually sure if the young man is asleep and still dreaming or if he ever actually wakes up.
Each scene is a new monologue or a discussion (usually between no more than two people) delving deep into philosophy. There is no story. No overarching plot. The young man is the only recurring character, but even he is not featured in every scene. It is a film largely without form, content to drift to and fro, in and out and every which way, philosophizing on topics of every nature.
What gives the film its dreamlike quality is the unique visual presentation. Linklater shot the entire film with handheld video cameras and real, flesh-and-blood actors, but spent about 15 months rotoscoping the live action, overlaying it with an animation style that essentially turns the “Waking Life” into the movie that does drugs for you.
But heady and visually distinct as it might be (Linklater would go on to use a similar style to great effect in his adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly”), “Waking Life” is simply an utter bore to get through. If this is what it’s like to drop mind-altering drugs and sit around rambling about philosophy for hours on end, I’m even more relieved than I thought that I never found time for that in college.
Look, it’s one thing to actually sit around and bounce deep ideas off your friends or acquaintances, but there’s such a disconnect here that I could never find myself engaged with any of the points or ideas being tossed about. Maybe the animation was too distracting or maybe I simply can’t be engaged in a philosophical discussion that either I’m not directly involved with or isn’t presented in an interesting narrative fashion.
The result is a film that seems like it should be more interesting than it actually is, which is a shame since I feel there’s actually some potential to be mined here in the way Linklater seems to want to explore the nature of lucid dreaming. Instead, we get a film that’s mostly just boring.
The only part I truly enjoyed was seeing Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke appear briefly as their respective characters from “Before Sunrise,” which mostly just made me want to go back and rewatch that film.
Thankfully, though, Linklater’s sequel to “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” is my next (and final) film in this series. I’ll have that review next week.
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.