Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Mark Margolis, Stephen McHattie

MPAA Rating: PG-13  (for some intense sequences of violent action, some sensuality and language)

Running Time: 1:36

Release Date: 11/22/06

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Review by Mark Dujsik

No one can fault Darren Aronofsky for being ambitious. One could fault him exceeding his grasp, certainly, but for his ambition, never. The Fountain takes the fable of man's search for everlasting life, expands it over a thousand years and across the worlds of reality and fiction, and muses philosophically all the way through. Part of writer/director Aronofsky's problem is that his film is not full of philosophical ponderings but with philosophical beatings, driving his message home so many times it becomes almost a joke. He's clearly working along the same lines as Kubrick, but he could have taken a lesson from the man and left some of this stuff a bit more enigmatic. Then again, maybe I would have liked the film less if I had left scratching my head for lack of understanding instead of wondering why it seems so clear cut. Whatever the case may be, The Fountain is a bold work of visual potency and thematic rigor that comes to an equal parts satisfying and frustrating conclusion. Satisfying because it will be understandable to anyone with the slightest familiarity with Zen and irony; frustrating because, for all its effort, the film is essentially an inflated love story.

The film interconnects three storylines, all occupied by two characters or their fictionalized counterparts. The central story involves Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman), a scientist living in modern times, and his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz).. Tommy has been working to find a cure for brain cancer, a task made incredibly important because Izzi is suffering from a terminal brain tumor. A test on a lab monkey using the shavings of a mysterious tree from South America leads to some surprising results. The primate begins to become mentally and physically younger, but the tumor remains. While the rest of his staff, including his boss Dr. Lillian Guzetti (Ellen Burstyn), think it is a scientific breakthrough worthy of more study, Tommy ignores the findings and continues his search for a cure. As this is happening, Tommy begins to read Izzi's new novel, a tale in the 1500s that has Queen Isabel (also Weisz) sending the conquistador Tomas (also Jackman) to New Spain to discover the biblical Tree of Life to save the country from Grand Inquisitor Silecio (Stephen McHattie), who wants to overthrow the queen for her alleged heresy. Also, some time in the 26th century, Tom is searching space with a mysterious tree in a transparent sphere for a nebula.

The timelines are intercut, slowly revealing the true nature of the larger picture at hand. There's admittedly very little to guess by the end of the film, as Aronofsky's screenplay spells out the ultimate meaning as soon as certain details are revealed. The identity of the tree is fairly obvious early on, and once Izzy begins to examine Mayan religious beliefs regarding the nebula, Tom's Little Prince-like traveling is apparent. What Aronofsky is going for is an obsession with potential loss, an almost eternal grief when the loss is realized, and an eventual realization of death's role in the greater scheme of life. It's all very hoity-toity and could be simplified as the stages of grieving. Fortunately, the film accomplishes more than that as a result of Aronofsky's confident narrative and visual style. There are some wondrous images here. Tom's silhouette moves in Tai Chi motions against the vastness of space. The queen's palace decorated with candles that seem floating in air, calling back the stars of Tom's later quest. The vision of the Tree of Life, set back against the fountain of the title, as the sun rises in the background. These are enduring pictures—visual motifs of the film's higher goals.

While the story flows nicely in between the three time eras thanks to Jay Rabinowitz' editing, some of the tale falls a bit flat, particularly scenes involving Tommy's scientific studies. In these scenes, we have Tommy flat out telling Guzetti that he's doing all of this for Izzy, and there actually is—I kid you not—a line immediately after in which Guzetti tells Tommy that he is "reckless." Some of Izzy's moments of mortal clarity come off as forced, especially when she contemplates that death is an act of creation and marvels at the Mayan description of death as the Road to Awe, but Rachel Weisz gives Izzy a strong intellectual core, helping to give these scenes a character-based fascination instead of philosophical strong-arming. Similarly, when Tommy states that death is a disease and he intends to find a cure, it could easily come off as complete hokum, but Hugh Jackman, shaping up to be one of our stronger leading men, is the emotional center of the film, giving the story its poignancy. There's a scene in which Tommy self-tattoos himself that Jackman imbues with raw, unabashed grief.

These affecting moments and Aronofsky's eye help make The Fountain more than an intellectually pandering exercise. Some of this stuff is questionable, yes (a zoom in to Tom's third eye during the climax is just a bit too New Age, and one has to wonder how on earth Tomas and his conquistadors miss a huge temple just yards from where they were exploring), but even with Aronofsky's unrestrained indulgence, this is an intellectually and sometimes emotional stimulating experience.

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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