Waking Life (2001) Movie Review

You know how when you’re talking to someone and instead of saying what they think or feel, they recall what they’ve read that someone else has said, and recite those sayings to you, as if hoping you’ll somehow miraculously forget that they’re regurgitating someone else’s words in lieu of their own thoughts or conclusions? That’s how I felt while watching Richard Linklater’s newest film, Waking Life, a (if you can call it that) movie about a young man who goes to sleep and, er, stuff happens.

There really is very little rhyme or reason to Waking Life. In fact, if you were to ask me what was the purpose of Waking Life I would tell you it’s so writer/director Linklater could film a movie, digitize the footages into a computer, and somehow “draw over” the images onscreen so the film becomes an animated movie that looks like overflowing watercolor drawings. Regardless, Linklater must have gone, “Eureka!” when he came up with the idea to make this movie. How else could you spend over 90 minutes regurgitating this person’s last words, what this person said, or what this other famous person said when asked this or that or at this moment in his life. Sigh. You get the idea.

Waking Life concerns a young man who begins to experience strange dreams where he encounters various people who lectures about various subjects, from the meaning of existence to the concept of words and feelings. He begins to take over his dreams through lucid dreaming, a technique where one can supposedly control one’s dreams and do neato things like fly around and have sex for hours. Or so a character in one of the dreams tells our narrator. (At this point, I couldn’t tell you what the main character’s name is, or if he even has a name, since I was so hopelessly bored out of my mind I struggled mightily to get through this film.)

The end result is 90 minutes of pointless lectures by various people, from street bums to activists to a guy who buys a can of gas so he can set himself on fire ala an infamous Buddhist monk protest (even the “dream characters” can’t do anything original!). Ethan Hawkes, Julia Delpy, and other known (and a lot of unknown) actors show up to act as mouthpieces for Linklater’s eclectic spin on life, society, culture, activism, and existence in general.

To be honest, I wasn’t completely bored. There were some segments in the movie (the film itself is a series of segments strung together to make a “movie”) that I found interesting. The discussion of thoughts and action, the concept of the word “love,” and other interesting tidbits that I have curiosity in did keep me awake. Unfortunately, Linklater seems to get bored of the interesting segments in favor of pointless ruminations on what this famous dead white guy said when he died or this other famous dead white guy said when he was interviewed, etc etc. You get the idea. There is rarely one “person” in this movie that doesn’t quote someone or recite someone else’s original ideas.

One word kept coming to mind as I watched Waking Life. I’m sure it’ll come to you, too, if you ever decide to give this movie a chance. That word? It’s pretentiousness. The entire movie, from end to end, is filled with pretentiousness. Unfortunately for Linklater, it’s not even intelligent pretentiousness. It’s just mindless regurgitation of other people’s writings, other people’s thoughts, ideas, and what Linklater read in a magazine somewhere at some time. The Hawkes/Delpy scene in particular seems pointless and, well, to be brutally honest, dumb. Another character seeks to “throw some knowledge” our way, but unfortunately all her Valley Girl-ish speech pattern did was distract me from her unoriginal “thoughts.”

In an attempt to keep us interested, the watercolor/animation look of the film allows inanimate objects and people’s body parts to float and morph and act out what’s being said onscreen. Sometimes the sudden movement or appearance of objects or visual realizations of what’s being said were very interesting. Characters also fly and cars that looks like boats are driven down streets.

Waking Life wants to be a deep film about deep subjects. It wants to be more than it is, or is capable of being. Regurgitation does not equal original thought, Richard.

Richard Linklater (director) / Richard Linklater (screenplay)
CAST: Trevor Jack Brooks
Steve Brudniak
John Christensen
Julie Delpy
Guy Forsyth

Buy Waking Life on DVD