When Richard Linklater’s latest premiered at the Sundance film festival, its surreal animation and intellectual aspirations drew gushing praise. When it travelled to the Venice festival, it put cinemagoers to sleep. In truth, its neither masterpiece nor masturbation. The bold visual style is certainly hypnotic (Linklater shot the movie with actors and then painted over them), but Waking Life is simply too fragmented to hit a mass audience.
For a start, there’s little or nothing by way of story. Instead, the nameless protagonist (Wiley Wiggins) simply wanders the streets, where – much like Linklater’s debut, Slacker – he meets a succession of strangers who expound and pontificate on seemingly random subjects. Sometimes this is wonderfully involving, such as in the scene where we’re told there are no modulations of light in dreams (if it’s dark, it stays dark and vice versa), and that the human brain can’t read LED displays either.
But so much of it is waffle. The train of thought continually wanders, drifting from dream talk to film criticism to Situationist philosophy with a disregard for continuity that seems to suggest the only criteria for being in this film is to talk about something Really Big And Clever.
Waking Life is a compendium of both Linklater’s strengths and his weaknesses. Yes, there’s the edgy energy of Slacker, and there’s certainly the warm rose-tinted romanticism of Before Sunrise. But there’s also the clunky tub-thumping of SubUrbia. To call it pretentious would be just a kneejerk reaction to a film with big ideas. ‘Unsubtle’ describes it more accurately, and its more boring excerpts seem to last a lifetime.