Delpy and HawkeIt is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing; like being tickled until you laugh yourself sick, or grossly overdoing it with the shrimp scampi at the all-you-can-eat buffet, or keeping so many cats that you end up with a house that smells like pee and a reputation as the neighborhood nutjob. Where movies are concerned, there's rarely a consensus about just what it takes for a film to cross the line from exciting to excessive. You may well be one of those who would accuse Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Fisher King) of absurd overindulgence in his pictures while he remains one of my personal favorites, and you may well be one of the many who rhapsodized about Moulin Rouge, a picture that left me feeling sickly and rather dangerously dehydrated 10 minutes in. In both cases, we would probably agree there's something worthwhile going on, but we'd disagree about the point at which that something worthwhile becomes a punishing sensory assault.
Waking Lifeis a rare thing, a movie that will impress and exhaust virtually everyone who sees it. This is a movie that will test even the hardiest film-goer, and even those who adore it will admit they have to be in the right frame of mind to tune in to its peculiar wavelength. Not only does the picture boast long, stream-of-consciousness monologues and dialogues about love, dreams, life, the universe and everything, but it's also rendered in endlessly shifting animation, with characters morphing by the second into Picassoid doodles, jittery Crayola nightmare people and other things strange enough that the medium of prose simply doesn't do them justice. The animation is traced (with a great deal of artistic license) over live-action footage shot on digital video, and while the talk is compelling stuff, it's quite possible that taken by itself, the original footage of all those people pontificating on the nature of existence would have made for a very slow-going film, something on the order of Woody Allen's turgid Shadows and Fog. But by letting his squad of animators run riot with the material, director Richard Linklater comes up with a film that's not unlike the dreams you'd have if you fell asleep in a philosophy class after eating a bad meatball sandwich. You stumble away from it rather grateful the experience is over, but also more keenly aware of the sheer oddness of the universe we've found ourselves in.
The plot, such as it is, concerns an unnamed man (the voice of Wiley Wiggins) who has apparently found himself stuck in a dream, unable to awaken. He begins randomly wandering through other people's dreams and engages them in talk, resulting in a more metaphysical version of Linklater's marvelous debut picture, 1991's Slacker, which introduced us in no particular order to whomever we happened to encounter in a nameless college town. There are curious shout-outs to earlier Linklater films (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy even turn up to reprise their characters from Linklater's disappointing Before Sunrise), along with cameos by such noted folk as Oceans 11 director Steven Soderbergh and Speed Levitch, the disturbingly manic tour guide featured in the documentary Cruise.
This freewheeling, strenuously introspective concoction was released to art houses in October of 2001 and was generally ignored in an America still very much in the midst of coping with Sept. 11. Enough time has passed that we can now settle down and assess the picture with clear minds, for all the good a clear mind will do you with Waking Life; while the film is already becoming a favorite among perpetually baked college students, it's a pretty intoxicating experience all by itself. This week's screening at UC Irvine affords you the chance to catch the picture in that window between its initial box-office failure and its inevitable re-discovery as an oddball classic. Roll over there and fit as much of this movie as you can inside your head.
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Waking Life screens at UC Irvine's Student Center, Crystal Cove Auditorium, Campus & W. Peltason drs., Irvine, (949) 824-5588; www.filmsociety.uci.edu. Fri., 7 & 9 p.m. $3-$5.