"Are we sleep-walking through our waking state or wake-walking through our dreams?" quizzes the promotional campaign for "Waking Life." Good question. Here's another: "Are we all first-year philosophy students searching for a good on-campus coffeehouse? If so, how did we stumble into this movie theater?"
Director/writer Richard Linklater's latest film plays as if the hard-toking high-schoolers of his "Dazed and Confused" (1993) had moved on to a university dorm and fixed their dilated pupils on the big picture of life, the universe and, like, everything. "Dazed"'s Wiley Wiggins is our guide, an unnamed spiritual searcher who floats through a series of intellectual exchanges with equally anonymous semi-strangers -- many or all of whom may exist solely in his subconscious mind. Some 60 characters in all show up to hash out theories of existence and mortality. This freshman discourse is what the film offers us instead of action, conflict or a genuine plot. At about the 20-minute mark, we experience the momentary desire to reach into the screen and slap the next of the chronic yammerers silly.
But they're just too pretty to hit. Linklater shot and edited "Waking Life" as a standard, live-action feature, then turned his work over to visionary computer animator Bob Sabiston, whose team "painted" over every frame of footage to create a remarkable cartoon dreamscape. (Sabiston displayed an earlier version of the technique in his short film, "Roadhead," which was seen here as part of the 1999 Florida Film Festival.) Rendered in varying degrees of detail and stylization, the characters attain a new, high-art vitality. Some morph into clouds, and others are susceptible to bouts of weightlesness. Even when seated, they pop and percolate like the evolutionary descendants of Comedy Central's Squigglevision prototype, Dr. Katz. This film is an indisputable landmark of animation from its first scene onward.
The approach does favors for the script as well, short-circuiting its innate pretension. To castigate its monologues as wearisome is ultimately pointless: Within this stylistic context, hallucinogenic banter is not only excusable but appropriate. (Still, one character verbally acknowledges the story's formlessness late in the game -- a winking aside that would have been better left unventured.)
Though "Waking Life" is the antithesis of a star vehicle, glimpses may be caught of paint-boxed notables who range from matinee idols (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) to obscure cult heroes (Timothy "Speed" Levitch, the real-life tour guide profiled in the 1999 documentary "The Cruise"). The more recognizable they are, the deeper they are embroiled in the film's key irony: Though many of the script's long-winded pontifications assert the freedom of the individual, these colorful creations are not free. Rather, they are artistic shadows whose onscreen destinies remain tied to their human origins.
Wow, that was heavy. Can I graduate?