The inevitable comparison -- apart from, say, a Studs Terkel book -- is to Linklater's 1991 debut, Slacker, of which this is essentially both remake and revision. Once again we find ourselves loitering with intent in the director's native Austin, Texas (with detours through New York and San Antonio), encountering audacious and breathlessly talkative souls who inhabit the same world only as a formality. However, unlike its predecessor, Waking Life isn't much concerned with Madonna's coveted pap-smears or a conspiratorial exodus of elitists from this smoldering planet. The nutjobs are here in force, but the director is now more focused on picking up where Slacker began, glibly questioning the fabric of his re-alitee.
To this end, Linklater has cobbled together the vaguest of narratives, involving a wistful young fellow (Wiley Wiggins, of the director's Dazed and Confused) who meanders through town learning about life, waking and otherwise. His puzzling and increasingly eerie sojourn includes loads of encounters and interviews with colorful locals and amusing guest stars, representing a virtual who's-who of the Linklater universe. Actors and nonactors from his previous films show up (among them, Before Sunrise's Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke), as do familiar locations and philosophical inquiries; the movie plays sort of like a much less amusing Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for art-house purists and pseudo-intellectuals.
Fortunately, though this is a terribly uneven movie, it's also complex enough to teach our nation's beloved payola critics exactly where to stick their damned thumbs. At once pretentious and populist, Waking Life struggles with half-baked philosophical inquiry in the most common and dreary middle-American settings, steadfastly defying categorization or polarized appraisal. Many of the participants speak with the exact same cadence, prompting one to view this less as a spectrum of humanity than a very personal puppet show; but whoever's talking, there's no dearth of deep thoughts.
Commencing with two little kids (Trevor Jack Brooks and Linklater's daughter, Lorelei) playing a game with folded paper to reveal that "dream is destiny," the movie takes us through a weird, timeless day in the life of Wiggins. He's in transit, fails to hail a friend on a pay phone, scopes a cute girl and suddenly finds himself hitching a ride with the jovial captain of a boat-shaped car (Bill Wise), who whimsically announces that "the idea is to remain in a constant state of departure while always arriving. It saves on introductions and goodbyes."
Breaking with the narrative conventions he honed in Before Sunrise, subUrbia and The Newton Boys, Linklater wastes no time here with the tedious trappings of the conscious world, such as identifying characters or developing a linear story. Instead, his vignettes introduce us to crimson madmen brimming with rage (Charles Gunning and Alex Jones), film scholars fascinated with "the sacred moment" (David Jewell and Caveh Zahedi) and a wide array of peripheral thinkers obsessed with identity, life, death, dreams and magic. Professor Louis Mackey (the wizened anarchist from Slacker) also shows up to wonder "which is the most universal human characteristic, fear ... or laziness?"
While much of the film is as scattershot as life itself, a few superb sequences involving lucid dreaming really get down to business. One involves Wiggins' venturing into "life's waiting room," where a strange fellow introducing himself as "the social lubricator of the dream state" explains how to tell when you're dreaming and what to do about it. Later, Wiggins finds himself in the unlikely position of being approached by his dream girl -- literally. And near the end, Linklater himself offers a lengthy spiritual soliloquy involving Philip K. Dick, Lady Gregory and the New Testament's book of Acts, discussed with wit and verve over a pinball machine. Lovely.
Technically, Waking Life is itself unique in that the entire movie was swiftly shot and edited on video, then painstakingly animated by more than thirty artists in a computerized rotoscope-like process developed by art director Bob Sabiston. While this seemingly gratuitous manipulation could prompt charges of cut-rate George Lucas wankery, the abstractions and frequent physical transformations greatly enhance the dreamlike atmosphere. Even better, Austin's wonderful Tosca Tango Orchestra delivers Glover Gill's haunting score as a dreamy trip in its own right.
All things considered, it's as easy to dismiss Waking Life as to embrace it; its sophomoric psychobabble prompts as much frustration as stimulation. Thankfully, Linklater's earnest good tidings eventually win out over his fruity metaphysics, as Wiggins realizes: "It's like I'm being prepared for something." Reflecting purpose in the chaos between consciousness and unconsciousness, the director's state-of-the-union address proves both insightful and inspiring.