When I first saw the trailer for Waking Life, I was completely taken by it and put it down as a “must see.” The unique impressionistic look and feel of the animation was enough to grab my attention—Claude Monet has long been my favorite artist, and I once flew to Los Angeles just to see a travelling Van Gogh exhibit.
Credit Richard Linklater for experimenting with "interpolated rotoscoping," in which live-action footage goes through a digital process to render a 99-minute animated feature that looks like Manet or Monet paintings sprung to life. Most of the colors are muted earth-tones as well, giving Waking Life a relaxing and laid-back feel. This should be my kind of movie.
Waking Life's pace parallels Linklater's debut feature, Slacker; both unfold with similar oddball characters and neo-philosophers.
Initially mesmerized by the impressionistic landscape, my initial enthusiasm began to turn into utter boredom about 5 minutes in. Had Linklater submitted his experiment as an animated short, I'd be praising his creative effort. Instead, this feels more like a bloated junk piece of deleted scenes from Linklater's previous work, flimsily held together by a one-trick premise. Without the digital technology critics would be scratching their heads at Waking Life's lack of coherence and its ultimate meaninglessness when digging beneath the pretentious bullshit.
Dazed and Confused's Wiley Wiggins is the protagonist, who may be in a perpetual dream state, or may be dead. After an opening sequence where two young children play a paper-folding fortune-telling game (“Your dreams are your destiny”), Wiggins meanders through a myriad of characters and sketches that attempt to make sense out of Life—Existentialism, the nature of Love, Free Will, Reality vs. Illusion, etc.
For a touch of variety, Linklater occasionally inserts a short sketch, the most memorable being a conversation (between a bartender and a gun-rights advocate) that ends with predictable pools of red coloring.
Nothing really happens during Waking Life. We listen in on a series of talking heads who expound about life in far-less interesting ways than My Dinner with Andre. In essence, Linklater's monotonous film journeys into verbal masturbation leading into existential oblivion.
If I want didactic lectures about the meaning of life from educated derelicts, I can head over to Arizona State University and hang in some of the local coffeehouses to hear this sort of gibberish from people who have virtually no life outside of their academic existence.
Had Linklater seamlessly included a handful of such scenes interspersed with other scenes to move the plot along, it would have been much more tolerable. But what about 25 talking heads spouting philosophy? I began to feel like Romeo shouting at Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech: “Thou talk'st of nothing!”
If you want impressionism, you'll get more satisfaction from heading over to the art museum and gazing at the works of Monet. Those paintings have much more action that Linklater's feature, and they are far more creative visually than the predictable animated symbols he throws into the mix—like the changing icons of Eastern religions that form the lapel pin of one of the talking heads. That some justify this as high art is unbelievable—Waking Life becomes another in a recent trend of MTV-style films that emphasize form over substance.
One of the core questions asked is whether the basic nature of human beings is more controlled by fear or laziness. Linklater's film clearly establishes that he is controlled far more by laziness. Had he actually developed a coherent story and pieced together some of his philosophical ideas more in the lines of a Woody Allen script, his impressionistic palette would be much easier to accept. Besides, if you actually have excellent actors, why hide them with the digital technology?
My guess: Linklater found out about this cool digital rotoscoping method and decided to play with it on some throwaway material, much like some initial forays I once took with Photoshop. When I discovered how easy it was to render any picture like a neo-impressionistic Van Gogh using a special filter, I began to transform many of my ordinary photographs into “works of art.”
Linklater has done the same. The naïve part of me would like to believe it’s a noble experiment, but the cynical portion suspects it's a commercial ripoff designed to confuse art-house patrons into thinking they are watching something profound. Throw in a clever Billy Wilder quote about how worthless movies about dreams are to throw off cynical critics, so they won't beat you up.
Waking Life ended up not working for me, even though I often enjoy films with spiritual and intellectual ideas and love the French impressionists. Crap is still crap, no matter what its guise. It'll take a lot before I'll be tricked into watching another Linklater project using this digital wizardry. I'll assume he's taking more rejected ideas and mundane acting performances and enhancing them with technology to hide their inherent ineptness.
On the other hand, should Woody Allen ever rotoscope Annie Hall, Manhattan, or Crimes and Misdemeanors into an impressionistic animated feature, I’d watch it in a heartbeat.
I’d watch anything Allen did, because even Allen on his worst filming days is superior to Linklater on his best. Some hypothesize that Waking Life is Linklater’s dream state. If so, I am thankful I don’t inhabit his nightmarish hell. Enduring the 99 minutes of Waking Life was tortuous enough.