BY LYNN LEE
“Waking Life,” Richard Linklater’s latest excursion into the dream world of talky philosophizing types, isn’t the masterpiece some critics have been calling it. There is, however, reason behind the raves. Part of it is the lack of good movies playing these days; part of it may be that the questions the film deals with are the big ones — life, death, dreaming and reality, individual and collective consciousness — that have gained extra poignancy since September 11. But a big part of it is simply the way this film looks. Shot originally on live-action video and then “colored over” with digital animation by computer artists, this is like no cartoon you’ve ever seen before. It’s at once surreal and hyper-real. Everything ripples and wavers; figures bob up and down slightly, and sometimes levitate; a face looks one moment like a flat construction paper cut-and-paste, the next like a video-cam recording with the hues wildly altered.
The dreamlike visual quality of the film lends a trippy, hypnotic feel to what would otherwise be a painfully slow succession of people rehashing Philosophy 101 with varying degrees of intelligence and eloquence. As it is, “Waking Life,” without being at all long, is still pretty slow. It’s vaguely centered in the perspective of a young man of no fixed identity or occupation, who spends the entire movie trying to figure out whether he is awake or dreaming, or even dead. He wanders from person to person, listening attentively to what each has to say about the human condition, and is treated to earnest and extended monologues (which could stand some more cutting) on, among other things, love, existentialism, determinism and, not surprisingly, cinematic illusion. Some of the speakers are unexpectedly compelling, some ridiculous, others merely tedious. The pithiest punctuates his statement by pouring gasoline on himself and setting himself on fire. The most haunting, as well as final, word comes — surprise, surprise — from the director himself (the animated version, of course) who offers his take on existence over a pinball machine. (Get it?)
In between these random encounters, Linklater intersperses even more random, disjointed scenes of conversation which don’t involve the protagonist but seem to be part of his dream-consciousness. These episodes have more punch than those in which he is visibly but passively listening. A chamber music group breezily tackles a composer’s new work in progress (this part is so “real” you can almost see through the CG to the original video); a psychopathic criminal, tinted lurid red, spews out even more lurid threats at the people who have put him behind bars; a sensational shooting story, told to a bartender, abruptly turns into a jarring shootout. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, reprising their roles from Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” only this time resembling figures from a Roy Lichtenstein canvas, have a yawner of a conversation about reincarnation. Through it all, the main character, not unlike the hero of “The Matrix,” keeps awakening from these sequences only to find himself in what appears to be another dream.
In the end, it’s hard to care whether he finally escapes or not, or whether there really is any firm line between waking and sleeping. Dramatic tension is not the driving force behind “Waking Life.” Intermittently thought-provoking, often quite funny, it floats — or sleepwalks — from thought to thought and image to image, the images tending to be infinitely more interesting than the thoughts. Occasionally, however, there’s real synergy between word and image, and it’s these moments that make the movie a visionary experience.