Waking Life (2001)
Directed by Richard Linklater

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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A young man wanders from place to place, encountering, observing, and talking with a variety of different persons, each of whom expounds on some topic or relates some story, all the while wondering if he himself is dreaming or dead.

Richard Linklater's Waking Life is an inventive and sometimes intriguing movie. Unfortunately, it is never realized with any noticeable aesthetic sensitivity and, in the end, is far more tedious than it is engaging.

Although the the film is not visually beautiful, it is sufficiently distinctive to prevent the viewer's interest from completely evaporating. The director has rotoscoped the whole of his work using bright, contrasting colors, crude lines, and vibrant, unstable forms, which, together, give the movie a psychedelic, disorienting quality and make it consistently fascinating to look at. What is more, this wonderful, dreamlike feeling the film is able to manifest somehow allows the viewer to move beyond his waking consciousness into a strange, hallucinatory, and fluid world, in which he is able to engage with the movie's characters and involve himself in their often eccentric perspectives.

Despite its visual appeal, Waking Life, does, however, eventually grow tiresome. Each person the unnamed protagonist encounters pontificates on one subject or another or tells some deliberately peculiar story. While a film filled with nothing but such expostulations and narratives can be a success, as is, for example, Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre, the shallowness and lack of insight of most of the diatribes Linklater includes make each of the protagonist's encounters a little less interesting than the one that came before it. The viewer's waning curiosity could, perhaps, have been resuscitated had the director diversified the content of his film, but he does not. Instead, Linklater incessantly bombards the viewer with one sermon after another until, in the end, the latter is so bored he is just waiting for the lecture series to come to an end. Because the movie's structure does strain the viewer's ability to remain engaged with it, Waking Life would have worked far better had it been about half as long as it is. Watching the film, I was reminded of times when, riding a bus, or some other means of public transportation, some wild-eyed person sat down next to me and, having decided to make use of his captive audience, regaled me with his understanding of the universe. If the viewer has enjoyed this sort of tirade, it is possible he will enjoy Waking Life. If he has found such moments tedious or annoying, he should probably avoid the movie.

Even though the appeal of the film's structure does eventually wear thin, I will grant that the director effectively uses it to bring out the quirkiness and diversity of people's opinions. He is able to remind the viewer how it is these very eccentricities which often make human interactions especially rich. If looked at for their intrinsic value, the opinions expressed in Waking Life may come across as sophomoric attempts at philosophizing rather than as anything particularly profound, but if they are taken as reflections of the personalities of the persons giving them, as intimations of the wealth of human complexity, they can be engaging. While the movie's repetitiousness eventually grows wearisome, the viewer may, for at least part of the film's duration, be intrigued by the personalities Linklater introduces to him.

I cannot honestly say that Waking Life is a good film, but it is sufficiently distinctive to merit seeing.

Review by Keith Allen

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