Animated 'Waking Life' is a dreamy philosophy class

The notion that "life is but a dream" is hardly new, but its popularity may revive if Richard Linklater's animated film "Waking Life" finds a large audience.

Strongly recalling "Slacker," which launched Linklater's career a decade ago, "Waking Life" is less a story than a series of offbeat encounters strung together by chance and coincidence. The hero is a young man who enjoys conversations with new acquaintances. He eventually starts to notice that his life consists of little else, and then other things begin striking him as strange - light switches don't work for him, for instance, and he can't read the numbers on his alarm clock, no matter how hard he tries.

The explanation? He's having a dream - but every time he wakes up, that turns out to be part of the dream as well. Will he ever find his way back to waking life? Or is human existence a dream in the first place, with so-called sleep a gateway to liberating alternatives?

Linklater explores this idea through style as well as story. Just as its hero dwells in a twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness, "Waking Life" hovers between live action and animation. The secret is a little-used system called rotoscoping, in which the movies are shot with real actors, and then transformed into cartoons by sophisticated tracing techniques. To his credit, Linklater is a truly independent filmmaker in two important ways: He works mostly outside the Hollywood system, and his best pictures push aside Hollywood's lust for action in favor of conversational scripts that celebrate the power of language.

"Waking Life" falls proudly into this pattern, so the amount of fun you'll have depends on how much you enjoy all its talk, talk, talk. Rest assured that it's not just idle chatter. Scene after scene evokes philosophy (Sartre, Nietzsche) and theology (Aquinas, Augustine) as the protagonist probes his predicament with a lively sense of adventure and good humor.

The ideas expressed in "Waking Life" will sound familiar if you ever took a philosophy course or joined a dorm-room bull session, and Linklater is better at playing with concepts than scrutinizing or synthesizing them. But few American filmmakers put more faith in the ability of words to stimulate the mind and heart. His new picture is a welcome wake-up call to today's jaded movie scene.

Rated R; contains vulgar language and a scene of savage verbal violence.

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