A Universe in Flux 

Richard Linklater’s Waking Life is always moving; Riding in Cars With Boys slips into neutral; The Last Castle rumbles along like a tank.  

The writer-director Richard Linklater shot Waking Life as a live-action feature on video before turning it over to his computer animation wizard, Bob Sabiston. The story, such as it is, tracks a young man, Wiley Wiggins (a star of Linklater’s Dazed and Confused [1993]), through a series of encounters with slackers, hipsters, scientists, philosophers, and characters from other Linklater movies such as Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise (1995). Wiggins might or might not be dreaming, but then who’s to say that life itself isn’t a dream? More important, is the dream—not to mention the life—as wakeful and free-wheeling as it ought to be?

Through these sundry, visionary monologues, Waking Life emerges as nothing less than a meditation on free will and an assertion of life’s limitless possibilities. It sounds like the ultimate Zen-doper’s college-dorm bullshit session, with physics and cinema professors dropping by to add some tone. And it is, on one level. As live action, this might have made a fairly engaging (if undramatic) quasi-documentary: It’s vivaciously shot, on the fly, and the random rollicking passions of so many pointy-heads can make you high. But Linklater reportedly waited decades for this new technology to arrive that would ensure that his film would be a great deal more than lively chatter. His employment of Sabiston and his team takes the material into a different sphere—literally. Thanks to this animation, you don’t need a joint to join the party or to grok the idea that the boundaries of consciousness are fluid, even illusory. That message is shimmering in every frame.

Sabiston calls his animation “interpolated rotoscoping.” He and his fellow artists stick to actors’ movements and expressions but add their own gloss: Now they drench a character in colors that suit his or her worldview, now they recast features to give a face the punch of caricature. Here and there they add a surreal touch to bring an abstract point alive—say, the notion that we’re cogs in a prefab machine. (A professor’s face turns into a mass of rotating cogs.) But that kind of gag is rare. Mainly, the animation serves to give motion to otherwise static outlines—to make Wiggins and his contacts wiggle. The sense is of a universe in constant flux, where the molecules are continually rearranging themselves, where patterns reform because they choose to reform or we choose to regard them as fluid. The laws of physics limit us, but not, perhaps, to the extent that we believe. In this dream-that-might-be-life, we have the ability to levitate, fly, enter other people’s dreams, and tap into a vast collective memory. Waking Life is one of the most inspired cases of the medium embodying the message ever captured on celluloid.

Before I surrender to my enthusiasm (and perhaps levitate out of my chair into the ether), I should add that messages—as someone once said—are for Western Union, and that you might find yourself groaning under the weight of so many disparate BIG ones in a movie. I look forward to seeing all of Waking Life again; I don’t much look forward to hearing it all again. Unlike My Dinner With Andre (1981)—in which Wallace Shawn’s skeptical materialism bounced enchantingly off Andre Gregory’s New Agey openness—or even James Toback’s much more free-floating The Big Bang (1990), Waking Life never engages us on the level of drama. The points of view are distantly related but don’t spark off one another: Each monologue takes place in a vacuum. That’s not to say that Linklater’s order is random. The film begins with the assertion of a little girl (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) that “Dream is destiny” and ends with a call to reject time (which is likened to “saying no to God”) and to surrender to the moment (which contains, of course, eternity). There is a shapeliness to the scenario, a progression that leads to letting go. But Waking Life is still something of an existential survey course.

Here are some of the moments that I recall, like details from an especially vivid dream. A man drives through the city in a boat: His mode of transport, he says, should be an extension of his personality, and his personality rests on the notion that “we are not landlocked.” Glover Gill conducts the Tosca Tango Orchestra, calling for more vibrato here, something slightly out of tune there, an aural spin on the varieties of visual (and religious) experience. Professor Robert C. Solomon maintains that “your life is yours to create” and urges us never to “write ourselves off as the victim of various forces.” Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their Before Sunrise roles (so they did get back together!) in a presumably post-coital discussion about the six to 12 minutes of brain activity after death that “could be your whole life.” A radical affirms his political freedom by setting himself on fire. A gun-toter caps a discussion of the necessity to bear arms in self-defense by blowing away a bartender (and getting blown away himself). A professor speaks of André Bazin’s conviction that film, at best, can capture “the holy moment,” a record of “the everlasting face of God.” A young woman whose coils of red hair stand up in the breeze like snakes responding to a beautiful melody says, “I want to see you. I want you to see me. … I don’t want to be an ant.” An old woman paints another old woman against a tangerine sky, the approach of physical death implicit.

I’m leaving out turns by Steven Soderbergh and Speed Levitch and a longish discussion of Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. And I haven’t mentioned how stunningly beautiful some of the animators’ cityscapes are. That’s free will for you.

No, I’m lying, it’s the opposite. I have a professional duty to move on and discuss two well-meaning duds.

Late in Beverly Donofrio’s fitfully engaging memoir Riding in Cars With Boys, the still-young mother (she gave birth at 15 to a son, Jason) looks back on the life that she has always regarded as unjustly and meaninglessly constricted. The paragraph—which bears a tenuous connection to the mention of free will above—is worth quoting in its entirety:

For half of my life, since the day I got pregnant, in fact, I’d thought I’d been stunted by Jason’s birth. But that had only been one way to look at it. Another way to look at it would be that the kid enriched my life, and maybe saved me from getting into even more trouble. With a kid to care for, no matter how haphazardly, I had to keep at least one foot on the ground always. This may have been a good thing. Maybe I never would’ve been given the opportunity to go to college if I hadn’t been a mother on welfare. Maybe I would’ve been feeling much older right now if I hadn’t had a kid, because in the act of being forced to grow up so fast, I rebelled and stayed a kid much longer, which contributed to my bohemian lifestyle (which was dismally out of sync in the middle of the eighties) and my lack of money (ditto), but it had also kept my perspective fresh, my friends the type of women who decide to buy Harley-Davidsons for themselves at the age of forty-five, and a portion of my interest focused on nothing but joy.
What do we learn from this big realization? First, that Donofrio isn’t a model of empathy: She talks about her son’s impact on her existence but not about hers on his. But we also discover a refreshing ability to reconcile the book’s often contradictory messages—to put them in a larger and more hopeful context. She didn’t have one destiny, there wasn’t one right way to live her life. She was promiscuous, she used drugs, she tended to blame the existence of her son for her failure to transcend her grim environment. Yet she managed to stay open, which is a pretty good end in itself. And she managed to write it all down.

I dwell on Donofrio’s life lessons because, watching the mopey Penny Marshall movie with Drew Barrymore, you wouldn’t have a clue that the protagonist has such a flexible intellect. It’s not Barrymore’s fault or even, necessarily, Marshall’s. The way that the screenwriter, Morgan Upton Ward, has shaped the material, Donofrio seems a bystander in her own life, a passive (if seething and resentful) victim of forces beyond her control.

For starters, Donofrio’s promiscuity and drug use has been largely left out. The way the film tells it, she was a brainy poet who took up—almost by accident—with a soulful outsider (Steve Zahn) who defended her against some louts and snobs in her high-school class. Her pregnancy hits us like an immaculate conception, since we’ve never been privy to their sexual relationship. (In life she and Ray had been sleeping together for a year.) In no time, Beverly is disgraced in the eyes of her classmates, relatives, and policeman dad (James Woods), and finds herself living in a rundown project with a screaming kid and a husband who’s either drunk or zonked on heroin. What makes this such a dull scenario is that the obstacles are all outside the protagonist: Fate delivers a child, a too-easily-disappointed dad, and a husband who goes on cue from sweet but unambitious lunkhead to slobbering junkie. It’s as if the filmmakers were afraid that Newt Gingrich or William Bennett would look too closely at the material and decide that no one could empathize (or like) a woman who made some reckless (but very human) choices.

Here’s Donofrio on her future husband: “Raymond was a high school dropout, his brother was a thief in jail, and his father was a Bowery bum. He needed me. More than anything else in the world I wanted Raymond to cry on my shoulder. I kissed his forehead. He pulled his face away and kissed my mouth.” This is a pretty common trajectory—a friend who has ended up with quite a few losers calls it “the wounded-bird syndrome.” But the relationship in the movie is one of strangers, not co-conspirators who happily resigned themselves for a while to smoking dope and embracing a high, counterculture lifestyle.

Zahn does extraordinarily subtle work as Ray, at times suggesting that his uselessness is like a state of grace. (His detachment is preferable to violence, which runs in his family.) And Barrymore does as much as the script will allow, playing Beverly as a woman whose chip on her shoulder threatens to turn her into a hunchback—someone too weighed down with anger to reach out to her child, who might be her best route out of her solipsistic hell. (Ward lingers so insistently on Beverly’s coldness as a mom that the movie could be an adaptation of the son’s memoir.) But there’s no dramatic trajectory here at all. When Beverly, clutching her manuscript of Riding in Cars With Boys, tells the college-age Jason, “You are not what went wrong, you are what saved me,” the line comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. It’s like a sop to the audience—a perfect correlative of Hans Zimmer’s schlock piano chords and Penny Marshall’s blandly humanistic framing. The ending, a ride in a car with her suddenly open-hearted dad, is a sop on top of a sop.

The Last Castle pits a disgraced but honorable general, Irwin (Robert Redford), against a sadistic military-prison commander, Winter (James Gandolfini), in a melodrama in which the clichés prove more lethal than the bullets. There’s a Billy Bibbit character straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and there are echoes of Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and probably a hundred other prison movies that I choose with my blessed free will not to recall. The director, Rod Lurie, works up some suspense in the climactic battle, but you can see every plot turn rumbling toward you like a heavy tank. Talk about fixed destinies.

Redford’s stillness is sometimes effective. His voice has deepened, and he’s finally playing a man his age. (You don’t think about how cracked that once-boyish face is, but about how trim he looks—all that skiing has given him a great upper body.) But his acting is so cautious, so warily internal, that he seems to be just standing in for Paul Newman or Clint Eastwood or some larger, more heroic presence. The most human character in the film is the loathsome villain. Lurie gives away everything in the first 10 minutes when he shows Winter listening to a concerto by Salieri. (Is Gen. Irwin supposed to be his Mozart?) Gandolfini wears wire-rimmed glasses that coldly reflect light (it’s the German commandant touch), and he works so hard to alter his normal, Tony Soprano cadences that he ends up sounding like William Shatner: “Whenever … I am … filled with doubts …” he explains to Irwin, “… whenever sentiment … creeps in … I think about what … these men … have done …” A character in Waking Life might say that he has inadvertently tapped into our collective memory of shit.