Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mental Illness And Mathematics: A Mind Not Beautiful, A Movie Not Compelling

The Good: Decent acting, Interesting elements
The Bad: Characters are dull, Derivative story, Pace is too slow to be considered a thriller, Pointless
The Basics: In a weird movie where the State and Kabbalists use an insane mathematician for their own ends, the viewer ends up bored and unentertained.

My first experience with the works of writer-director Darren Aronofsky came a few weeks ago when I took in the miserable, but great Requiem For A Dream (reviewed here!), which I have no problem admitting was a movie I absolutely hated (though I could recognize its technical brilliance). It was enough for me to look into his other works and that brought me to Pi, a movie I had heard of and wanted to see, but needed to be reminded of.

Maximillian Cohen is a man obsessed with numbers. He has come to believe that all of reality may be expressed numerologically. He, therefore, is investigating numbers - like those of the stock market - to unlock the secrets of the universe. Encouraged by Sol Robeson, a mentor who studied the number Pi, Maximillian finds himself and his skills sought after by the government and Kabbalists. He tries to understand the numbers, when he inadvertently creates a computer glitch that might well be the numerical incarnation of god, and he ends up on the run.

From the two movies I've seen so far of his, Darren Aronofsky seems obsessed with repetition. Both films have sequences of visuals and audio effects that repeat throughout the movie with such regularity that they come to be predicted and, ultimately, become the only memorable aspects of those movies. Pi is more bizarre than the straightforward repetitive drug use in Requiem For A Dream and Max's story that he keeps repeating about staring at the sun is less memorable.

In Pi, it's hard to argue that Aronofsky even had a brilliant idea for a movie. The idea of numbers representing reality is nothing new and numerologists are common enough, even if they are not well-represented in cinema. But if nothing else, Pi illustrates that they aren't very cinematic either. Aronofsky relies on cheap tricks, like shooting in a grainy black and white, to entice the viewer as opposed to telling a compelling story. And for naysayers around here who might be inclined to fight for this film, I GET what Aronofsky is doing and saying with the black and white, it's just cheap to me in this context. It doesn't add a sufficient depth to the story or present the otherwise uninteresting film in a way that makes it any more meaningful.

For those who do not know what Kabbalists are, Jewish mysticism involves a sophisticated numerology wherein the relationship between words in Hebrew and numbers are deeply intertwined. As a result, the connection between words and numbers is thought to be a key to revealing the origins of the divine and will allow those who study the ancient texts in this way to understand god better. Last I knew, Madonna was into Kabbalism.

Regardless of how trendy it might be, Kabbalism is not new or fresh and Pi certainly does not make it compelling as a subject or antagonist. Instead, like the government, the Kabbalists seem like monolithic, generic villains - which when we understand Maximillian and his insanity makes a lot of sense. The thing is, throughout Pi, I had the sense that this was nothing new, though it was trying to be. The story is not exciting and unlike A Beautiful Mind, (reviewed here!) which tried to humanize the protagonist through his wife, this movie does not even have that.

The resolution to the movie is especially disappointing as one my favorite film of all time is Brazil (reviewed here!). Aronofsky seems to have simply lifted a page from Gilliam and the Sid Shienberg "Love Conquers All" version of the superior classic. So, Pi is underwhelming for its plot and presentation and pacing.

That leaves character and acting to evaluate and the truth is, this movie is so far inside the head of Maximillian - I don't believe there is a single scene from anyone else's perspective, which again makes some sense given the resolution of the movie - that none of the other characters are even remotely fleshed out. Their surface personas, as Max presents them in his view, are unremarkable and uninteresting. None of them pop for the viewer to want to know more about, with the exception of Devi, Max's neighbor who appears to have affection for him.

As for Max, it's hard to find him sympathetic as he is so disturbed. The best a director may hope for in a story such as this is empathy. It fails to evoke that. Max is not an empathetic character. One might, at best, feel sorry for how his genius breaks him, but genuinely caring about him as a representation of the human condition is near impossible. With such an unlikable protagonist - watching a mathematician run around with a crazed expression is just boring - Pi feels longer than the 84 minutes it actually is.

The only redeeming aspect of the movie is the acting of Sean Gullette, who plays Maximillian. Gullette is convincing as a mathematician who has gone crazy. He creates the crazy with his eyes and flailing body language. He convinces us of his genius with his cold stare and intense eyes. He makes the viewer believe that he was a man who was great and simply was sucked into something bigger than himself.

But for the most part, this is a jumbled, frenetic movie that is not terribly new or different, though the numerology aspects might be to some. It's a disappointment and it's nice to see that Aronofsky's next endeavor, despite being so disturbing I would never watch it again, illustrated some serious growth into greatness.

For other films by Darren Aronofsky, check out my reviews of:
Black Swan
The Fountain


For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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