Friday, December 19, 2008

Queue It Up: The Fountain

[In anticipation of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

In the 16th Century a Spanish conquistador in the jungles of Guatemala climbs the precipitous steps of a Mayan temple. In the 21st Century a doctor throws himself into radical medical research that he hopes will save his dying wife. In the 26th Century a celestial explorer ascends toward the heavens in a bubble protecting a withered tree. And in the present we try to make sense of it all.

The Fountain, the third film by Darren Aronofsky, is a paradox. It’s a film that spans a millennium and yet exists always in the present. It’s a movie that unfolds over three continents, and in outer space, that almost never leaves the soundstage. It’s a story of losing love and finding it – of tragedy and triumph – that’s epic and yet elemental. And even though the tale’s three stanzas often lack literal coherence, the mood of this cinematic poem is never in doubt.

I’ve seen the movie twice now and I’m crazy about it, though let me caution you from the beginning: it isn’t for everyone. While I left the theater with goose bumps of excitement, I was also keenly aware of the deep loathing of others in the audience. It was palpable. And understandably so, I guess, because most filmmakers today wouldn’t be so audacious with material that is so rudimentary at its base. The Fountain is like an extensive scavenger hunt leading to a bouquet of roses, and some audience members will leave the movie like disappointed wannabe brides who would rather have been delivered greater goods for significantly less effort (“Just get down on your knee and give me a ring, dammit!”).

But for me and others – because I think this film will have some passionate devotees – that’s the beauty of The Fountain. Through its twists, turns and daring leaps, it restores the extravagance of issues and emotions that are too often oversimplified in movies: life, death, love and eternity. It is, I’m confident in saying, the most romantic film of 2006. And it makes me recall 2002, when I had the same feeling about Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris – another movie that alienated many moviegoers unable to embrace romantic themes in a science fiction setting.

This time there’s some irony to that (and since there’s pleasure to be found in cracking this movie’s code, it’s time I issue a serious spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph). The Fountain, ultimately, is about how reality is shaped by perception. The trunk of the movie’s narrative tree is the 21st Century tale of Dr. Tommy Creo and his tumor-afflicted wife Izzi. The tales unfolding 500 years before and after are the branches, stretching out on their own but existing only because of the trunk. The yarn of Tomas the Conquistador, sent halfway across the world by Spain’s Queen Isabel to find the Tree of Life, is one dreamt up by Izzi in the present as a way to rationalize why her husband spends more time in a lab searching for an unlikely cure than at home with her in their final earthy days together. Meanwhile, the episode in 26th Century space is concocted by Tommy to grapple with what it means to lose his beloved.

The male leads are played by Hugh Jackman: Tomas, the bearded and weathered conquistador; Tommy, the scruffy and determined doctor; and Tom, the entirely clean-shaven cosmos-politan. Rachel Weisz plays his love: Isabel, the extravagantly gowned queen in the past; and Izzi, the ailing writer in the present who also appears as a vision to Tom in the future. The duo’s acting is committed. Jackman sporadically slips into melodrama in the present-day chapter, but he nicely captures the insatiable determination of Tommy’s three incarnations, and Weisz is alluring throughout, giving a performance even more heartfelt than her Oscar-winning turn from The Constant Gardener.

Aronofsky, Weisz’s real-life mate, hardly made it easy on his actors. Though the writer/director is a master of visual verse, his dialogue has the grace of a drunken goose. When Weisz is in control of the language we hardly notice, but when Ellen Burstyn, as Tommy’s boss, is handed the jackass’s share of hackneyed lines (calling her breaking-the-rules doctor “reckless” and all but threatening to make him turn in is stethoscope, for example), it’s enough to make you hide your eyes.

But picking at the dialogue seems petty considering the degree to which The Fountain functions without words. Providing far more truth than any verbal discourse is a positively outstanding score by Clint Mansell – performed by the Kronos Quartet (three violins and a cello) and Mogwai (piano, guitar, bass and drums) – that propels us onward, onward, onward to echo Tommy’s unrelenting quest to save his wife by whatever means necessary. If after the movie’s first 30 minutes you were to shut your eyes and just listen to the music, you might follow the story with greater ease.

But don’t be so foolish. To close you eyes would be to miss out on the lyrical visuals of a director who’d better not wait six more years to release his next movie. Save an exterior shot in a snowy field, it doesn’t appear that Aronofsky ever left the Warner Bros. backlot to make this galaxy-trotting picture. But he didn’t need to. Just like the Wizard of Oz was meant to unfold in fishbowl-esque pseudo-reality, The Fountain belongs in its plastic-makes-perfect world. The Mayan ruins have the fantasy qualities of a Disneyland ride, and the futuristic bubble looks like a neglected arboretum. The sets feel as if they were stitched together from threads of dreams, which is precisely right.

But for those who find it difficult to ping-pong between Aronofsky’s worlds of light and dark, this experience will be a nightmare. Jumping forward and backward in time and moving in and out of reality, The Fountain takes the long road to find its little peace of mind. Yet it could be no other way. For a film about the courage required to make a leap of faith, it’s only appropriate that a conquistador’s spirit is required. Amidst the vast cinema landscape of been-there, done-thats, this movie springs up majestically like a temple in dense rainforests – incongruous but grand. To achieve its nirvana you’ll have to trust, let go and move toward the light. So do so. Behold!

[“Queue It Up” is a series of sporadic recommendations of often overlooked movies for your Netflix queue.]


Joel Bocko said...

Sadly, I could not get beyond the drunken goose.

Richard Bellamy said...

This film is certainly dazzling visually - and I really enjoyed it for that. I enjoyed the Conquistador episode - however you interpret the existence of that story within the story - and I especially enjoyed Weisz's acting in the present-day story. Although I enjoyed the visuals of the futuristic episode, I found myself wishing that part of the story had been grounded in suspense and more conventional sci-fi elements. Though, I guess, the unconventional nature of "The Fountain" makes it a distinctive cinematic treat.

Sam Juliano said...

This is a wonderful ad passionate review of a film I venerate as any other released in the new millenium. It's a phantasmogoric examination of eternal life among other compelling themes, and as you rigtly point out, Clint Mansell's score is extaraordinary--an achingly elegiac score with deep emotional resonance. The film always brings tears.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, Sam. I can't say I always quite get to tears, but I never fail to get a lump in my throat at "Behold!" Beautiful.