'Waking Life' is worth living

by David Klein | 1/3/02 6:00am

Director and screenwriter Richard Linklater appears to have great difficulty shedding his "Dazed and Confused" mindset with "Waking Life," an entrancing animated voyage that's destined to be a requirement in any stoner's video collection.

While "Life's" trippy visuals (the film was animated over live-action footage) may provide sufficient fodder to hook in the toking crowd, Linklater's engrossing script, which explores the fine line between the dream and real world, is sure to captivate the clear-headed as well.

Since his 1991 cult-fave, "Slacker," a string of isolated vignettes which explores a day in the lives of hapless Gen-Xers in Austin, Texas, Linklater has been able to create a style all his own.

His impressive ability to formulate a variety of highly unique and memorable characters through witty and often thought provoking dialogue was acknowledged by many with the release of his critically and commercially successful hit, "Dazed and Confused," one of those rare teen comedies that doesn't make you proclaim, "not another teen movie."

Linklater's depiction in "Dazed" of a final school day in the late '70s accurately captures the eagerness and awkwardness of rising freshmen and the high-anxiety of students facing their final year of high school with charming realism.

With "Waking Life," Linklater proves that his writing ability has matured over the past decade. Following in a similar vein of "Slacker," "Life" takes a nameless young man (played by Linklater vet Wiley Wiggins) through a series of one-off encounters with a bevy of fascinating and occasionally familiar faces which include Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh.

Though "Life" begins on the disjointed and occasionally frustrating path that meanders throughout "Slacker," Linklater eventually streamlines the plot with an absorbing fluidity that mirror's the film's cinematography.

The film's protagonist glides from scene to scene, absorbing the dialogue from each of the many individuals he encounters, taking into careful consideration each word of advice and anecdote he's presented. Though Wiggins' own dialogue is sparse, as he leaves most of the talking to the people he comes across, he successfully exudes the sort of fascinated wonderment that he projected as Mitch Kramer, the eager-to-grow-old freshman in "Dazed and Confused."

Linklater has, perhaps, created his most familiar role with Wiggins' journeyman, as his confusion and fascination with the scenarios he finds himself in simultaneously mirror the sentiments of the viewer. Nearly every encounter he makes forces the reevaluation of what is real and what is mere fantasy. Linklater consistently keeps the viewer guessing the state in which Wiggins resides -- is he awake, is he dreaming, is he dreaming within a dream?

"Waking Life" is at its core a continuous guessing game which in the end forces the viewer not only to contemplate the situation that unfolds on screen but our own individual worlds as well.