Waking Life

Movie Information

Genre: Animated Existentialist Fantasy
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Speed Levitch
Rated: R

I have a personal litmus test for movies. Basically, it consists of this concept: Any movie that makes me wish I was sitting through the entire original three-hour-and-50 minute cut of Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara is in the direst of trouble. Rare is the film that achieves this dubious accolade, but Richard Linklater’s generally praised Waking Life (personally, I’m convinced they left an “n” out of the first word of the title) is in that select group. Yes, there are worse films than Waking Life, but — with the possible exception of My Dinner with Andre — I’m hard-pressed to recall one that scaled such impressive heights of cosmic boredom, even at a mere 99 minutes. It’s apparently trendy to praise Waking Life to the skies as some sort of daring experiment in both animation and narrative structure. Both are true. The animation is unusual, even though it’s not a lot more than a computer tarted-up version of the process called rotoscope that was invented back in the 1920s by the Fleischer Brothers. (This is the process that allowed an animated Cab Calloway to dance with Betty Boop in the early ’30s, and transferred Bela Lugosi’s sinister movements into Tchernaborg in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia — a process by which live action is, in essence, traced into animated form.) The results here — which are supposedly “impressionistic” — are peculiar. They’re even unnerving. And so far as I’m concerned, they wear out their welcome in something under 15 minutes. The structure, too, is out of the ordinary for the simple reason that there really is no structure. Instead of a structure — or even a rudimentary story line — the film follows a 20-something character (Wiley Wiggins) through a variety of dreams and encounters with a series of appallingly verbose people, who, in real life, you’d cross the street to avoid. This might be interesting enough if this verbosity resulted in anything other than the most preposterously pretentious rubbish since Andre Gregory waxed emotional over a group therapy session in which the participants nursed a teddy bear in My Dinner with Andre. The end effect is remarkably like being stuck in a roomful of stoned pseudo-intellectuals at 3 a.m. — and it’s just about as enlightening. Here’s a random example of what passes for significance in Waking Life: “The ongoing wow is happening right now. We are all co-authors of this dancing exuberance, for even our inabilities are having a roast. We are the authors of ourselves, co-authoring a gigantic Dostoyevsky novel starring clowns.” At moments like this — and the film fairly brims with such moments — it’s hard not to believe that writer-director Linklater is of the opinion that he’s achieving total heaviosity. And just in case we doubt the intellectual significance of the film, Linklater name-drops Kierkegaard, Nietszche and Thomas Mann — not that there’s all that much to suggest a burning familiarity on his part with any of these names. Judging by the numerous enthusiastic reviews Waking Life has garnered, I am perhaps just not hip enough for this film. I don’t know. I do know that I felt like I was being subjected to an amazingly transparent con job the entire time. But then that’s almost exactly the way all of Linklater’s previous work has affected me, so I oughtn’t have been exactly shocked. For as much as a lot of us kvetch about the emptiness of mainstream Hollywood movies, Waking Life is the sort of the “art” film that proves there are far worse things awaiting the unwary moviegoer than mainstream Hollywood movies.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “Waking Life

  1. Ian Horner

    I tend to enjoy your reviews but I almost felt somehow insulted after reading this one. I love this movie. I agree that it is not particularly exciting; however, I found almost every scene to be deeply interesting and often fascinating. Admittedly, there are some stretches of dialogue that seem to ramble or lack meaning, but the good scenes far out-weigh the boring ones in my opinion. How could you dislike the Ethan Hawke scene or the “free will” part? I also think you missed the point of all the random philosophical discussions. If you listen closely, these discussions provide explanation for the plot of the film. As I interpreted it, the protagonist has died and is experiencing the “12 minutes of brain activity” as described by Ethan Hawke. In this dream state he searches for meaning in his life before finally realizing that he is in fact dead. With a new-found understanding of his life he lets go and fades into oblivion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.