Friday, February 25, 2011

The Fountain

If I could live forever, I would avoid ever seeing Requiem for a Dream again.
Darren Aronofsky has a reputation for making movies that mess with your head.  I will admit that I haven't been keeping up with his career (I'm seeing Black Swan this weekend, but I still haven't see The Wrestler), but this fits with my first-hand knowledge of his works.  I enjoyed his first film, Pi, because it was weird; I hate Requiem For a Dream because I found it pretentious and ridiculously depressing.  But the man is up for another Oscar nomination and is going to direct the X-Men spin-off, The Wolverine, so I thought I should check out the man's work.

Those with elephantine memories might recall The Fountain as one of those Hollywood projects that was destined to fail.  It had a big budget and some big name actors attached, but it never got made, even after Brad Pitt grew this fantastic beard for the lead role:
Beard tentacles!
Sadly, Pitt left the picture to star in Troy, which wasn't good, and Aronofsky was left back at square one.  But, being a determined man, he retooled the script, cut the budget in half, and convinced two fairly big name actors (Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz) to star in the film.  Even this didn't keep the movie from flopping in the box office, but with an auteur like Aronofsky, that doesn't necessarily indicate a bad movie.

The plot is difficult to summarize.  It is not told in a linear fashion, but that is not because the plot is trying to postpone a relevant twist until the end of the movie.  No, this movie is nonlinear for symbolic purposes.  There are actually three storylines.  The first involves a Spanish Conquistador searching for the fountain of youth for his queen, the second is about a modern-day scientist that is desperately trying to cure his wife's brain tumor, and the third is about a futuristic astronaut that is trying to reach a distant nebula.  Making things extra difficult, Hugh Jackman plays Tomas, Thomas, and Tom in the three storylines, respectively, and Rachel Weisz plays Isabel and Izzie, respectively.  Man, this is getting complicated even before I attempt to summarize it.

Here's the gist of the stories.  Tomas the Conquistador wants to save his queen from the Spanish Inquisition; she convinces him that the only way to do that is to find the fountain of life.  If he succeeds, she will become his wife.  The movie shows him being convinced by the queen and in the jungles of America on his search.  There are no Spanish accents to be found in this film, though.  Thomas is a talented neuroscientist whose wife, Izzy, is terminally ill.  Instead of accepting her death (as she has), he throws himself into his research, desperate for the breakthrough that she doesn't demand, but he so desperately needs.  Tom is inside a large bubble (who needs a spaceship in the future?) with only a few personal items and a dying tree (that might be Isabel?  Maybe?); his goal is to reach a nebula and be consumed by it, which will somehow give renewed life to the tree.

The three stories are mixed together so that they all climax at about the same time.  The obvious implication of the characters names is that they are the same people/souls, and all three stories are trying to find a way to come to terms with death.  Now, that is a pretty big issue --- does this movie have what it takes to handle it?

Not especially.  It's overly ambitious (do you really think they're going to come to a satisfying conclusion about eternal life here?), but that doesn't mean that the actors or director did a bad job assembling this movie.  Yes, I'm a little suspicious as to why Pitt had to grow such a massive beard but Jackman just grew a goatee, but that doesn't negate what was done on screen.  Since the movie is, essentially, divided into three distinct parts (regardless of how interconnected they may be), each part deserves a satisfying conclusion.  Do they get it?  Well...not so much.  What viewers do get is a few half-baked ideas about eternal life.  Does eternal life mean living as normal folks know it, or does it mean joining some other consciousness?  Is eternal life a good thing, or a curse?  Is it better to fight or accept death?

I don't know what to tell you.  You would think a movie that tackles such deep issues would take a definite stance on this, but I'm not seeing it.  Of course, Aronofsky could be making a singular point and is just obscuring it in metaphors.  Maybe.  But I think it is more likely that the confusion I felt while watching the movie is representative of the film's message.  Life and death are The Big Issues, and this movie is not nearly equipped to deal with them.

My problem with The Fountain could have been with its pretentiousness.  It certainly is full of itself, but I'm okay with that when a movie is trying to make a big statement about important things.  No, my problem is with its execution.  There are three storylines in this movie; there only needs to be one.  I actually liked the modern day story; the acting was good, it had the most believable characters, and it had the most depth.  The other two story lines are just weird.  Do we need a Conquistador that literally turns into flowers?  That seems doubtful.  How about a tai chi practitioner that eats tree/woman bark to sustain his life?  Unlikely.  Both of those storylines were beyond odd to watch and, in the end, they left me speechless.  That's not a good thing.  I was only rendered speechless because I don't like to curse out loud when I'm home alone.
Why is this tree hairy?  ***sound of head exploding***

The film's biggest crime is not even its WTF moments.  It wants to be an important talking piece about death, but it falls so short of its goals; this movie isn't bad because it aimed for the stars, but because it fell so short.  By cut-and-pasting the three narratives together, The Fountain succeeds in drawing parallels between its three Toms and their situations.  That same process cheapens the emotional impact of modern-day Thomas' story; his Izzie has warmth and depth and is genuinely interesting, but the subtlety of Rachel Weisz's performance is lost when it is edited to parallel a bizarre space bubble riding, tree-eating cosmonaut.

The Fountain is what many critics might call an "interesting failure."  That sounds a little pompous to me, but there is some truth to it.  There is no denying that Darren Aronofsky is a talented director.  His movies are always visually imaginative.  He gets some very good performances from his actors, even in unusual roles.  I didn't like the story lines of Christmases past or future here, but the primary storyline had some very good acting.  Rachel Weisz was excellent as Izzie, Hugh Jackman was good as Thomas (less good as Tom and Tomas, though), and the supporting cast was solid.  Ellen Burstyn, Ethan Suplee, Sean Patrick Thomas, Mark Margolis, and Stephen McHattie all make appearances in this movie, although only Burstyn has the opportunity to act much.  Now, if Aronofsky could just make a movie that isn't miserable to watch, he'd be great.

Despite the impressive visuals and the occasionally impressive acting, The Fountain is still a narrative mess.  There's a small voice in the back of my head that keeps suggesting that maybe I don't get it, but I think I do --- and I'm not impressed.  What is the lesson here?  Maybe the bigger the central idea, the less convoluted it needs to be.


  1. A narrative mess? You act as if the movie was meant to have a cohesive narrative. It is meant to be open to your own interpretation such as a David Lynch film. He meshed the surrealism into the sci-fi genre to tell a beautiful love story. I think the film is Aronofsky's best work to date, and he happens to think so as well.

    P.S. Jackman's acting is amazing across the boards. Each role contains an intensely emotional scene that is nothing short of brilliance on his part. Hands down his best performance to date.

  2. I understand your point about the narrative, but I disagree. All movies are open to your own interpretation, not just ones with disjointed narratives. When I encounter films that take great pains to avoid a cohesive narrative, like this film or many David Lynch movies, I want to walk away with something --- an emotional response, a sense of accomplishment, satisfied curiosity, or whatever. If I can't do that, even after contemplating the movie on my own or talking it over with friends, then I think the film has failed. I didn't walk away with anything from my Fountain experience, and that is why I had a problem with it.

    I'm glad you got a beautiful love story out of this movie. I got a lot of half-formed (but interesting) ideas about death and loss that had their emotional impact blunted by the film's surrealism. Then again, you obviously interpreted the film as you saw fit.

    While I don't particularly care for this movie, I'm happy to see that it has passionate fans. People that enjoy nontraditional cinema are key to supporting filmmakers willing to take risks, and risks lead to innovation, and innovation is fun to watch.

    As for Jackman's performance, you can make a case for this being his finest work to date, but I don't think that's saying much. He hasn't exactly taken many roles that demand much from him. I completely disagree on the emotional intensity of his performances, though.

  3. Just finished watching this with my GF, and headed to the Internet to figure out if we missed something. Found your review. Glad to see we're not the only ones mostly left scratching our heads. I think we both agree with you on all counts.

    We decided that it would have made an excellent short; because it was a thought-provoking story, but as a full length movie, far too overlong.

  4. I am one of the few people who actually thought the fountain was a mesmerizing experience to watch? It's pure brilliance, doesn't kiss up for its viewers letting them think? Doesn't have a meaning you say? Than let me laugh at yourself for not understanding a word from the movie...... Even I fou don't understand what's real and what's not you still get a beautiful meaning about life death and rebirth...... Probably the best movie I have seen along with "the prestige" Arfonsky and Nolan are my movie idols for their brilliant and complicated movies.
    The fountain is a movie you either lover or hate..... I chose to love

  5. @gabdbdhsb: You are far from the only person to enjoy The Fountain.

    There are movies that I don't fully understand, but still enjoy --- 2001 and its space baby is a good example --- but that is because the films can stand on their own, with or without the parts that are intentionally confusing.

    Here's the thing: you can make a movie as complicated and as weird as you like, but it should still be entertaining and/or interesting. The Fountain did neither for me. Sure, it's pretty, but its under-explained existentialism felt sophomoric to me.

    I do enjoy Nolan, though. The Prestige was my least favorite movie from him (because I predicted the ending waaaay early), but I think I'll give it another shot soon.