|The Fountain (2006)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Cliff Curtis
Director: Darren Aronofsky
As I walked out of the theater after seeing Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” I spent the next hour in what felt like a drug-fueled haze, unsure of what I had just seen and with no idea what sense, if any, was to be made of it. In that sixty-first minute, however, something clicked, and that epiphany made sitting through what is arguably the longest 96-minute movie in history worthwhile. Of course, my theory about what really happened in “The Fountain” could be completely and totally wrong, but it gave me closure, damn it. Those who see the movie and do not reach this crucial stage will curse its name to the heavens, and they would not be wrong in doing so. It’s deliberately slow, eerily quiet, and obtuse like no movie you’ve seen from a major studio in years. And odd as it may seem, Warner Brothers should be applauded for greenlighting a movie with those qualities. It will surely lose a ton of money for them in the short run, but mark my words: books will be written, and film classes will be centered, around this movie in the future. Remember, most critics hated “2001” when it first came out. Now look at how people fall at its feet.
The story is an odd little fantasy that takes place in three different times, each one 500 years apart. In the earliest one, Tomas (Hugh Jackman) is the loyal servant to Spain’s Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz). Isabel sends Tomas on a quest to help her find a weapon that will help her rally against the Grand Inquisitor (Stephen McHattie) and his minions. Meanwhile, in the present, there’s Tommy and Izzy (also Jackman and Weisz). Tommy is a brain surgeon who’s doing experimental but potentially dangerous work on chimps in order to find a cure for the brain tumor in Izzy’s head. And then there’s Tom (yep, Jackman), who’s literally in his own little world, floating through space with a tree. That was not a typo.
Director/screenwriter Aronofsky spent six years getting this movie made, starting with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and a $70 million budget, and ultimately making the movie with Jackman, Weisz (who is Aronofsky’s wife) and a $35 million budget. I wonder if Aronofsky himself is happy with the results. It doesn’t look a thing like the minimalist, machine-gun-edit approach he used with his two other films, “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” though it does look much, much better than a hundred other movies I’ve seen that cost $35 million or more. I’m sure that the shift in cinematic style was his intent, but was he aware that the end result was so Kubrick-esque that we completely forgot that we’re watching a Darren Aronofsky movie? It’s as if he fell on his own sword to prove a point that didn’t matter to anyone in the first place. Indeed, a little quick-cut editing – Aronofsky’s ace in the hole – would have done this movie some good in terms of pacing, and keep in mind that I’m the dead last person to ever say that a movie should contain more quick cuts. Lord knows we don’t need more Bays, Ratners and McG’s out there clogging the pipeline.
Jackman seemed more comfortable as Tomas and Tommy, but was a mess as Tom, which is odd, since they are ostensibly the same person. Perhaps that was by design, but I will elaborate no more on that front. Weisz seemed to be struggling with her American accent here and there, but I let it go since her role doesn’t allow her to act in a way that we consider acting. The rest of the cast is superfluous, including Ellen Burstyn (who should have won the Oscar over Julia Roberts for her performance in “Requiem,” but I digress) as Tommy’s supervisor. This is basically a two-person show, for better and for worse. But you won’t be mad at the actors when the credits roll, so this whole performance-breakdown paragraph is all for naught.
Back to the drug-fueled haze: as I’m talking with my fellow movie critic snob friends afterwards, I fully planned on giving “The Fountain” two stars, two and a half tops. And while there is now a part of me that wants to give it four or five stars, and praise Aronofsky for making a movie that will challenge viewers in a way that few movies these days have the stones to do, the fact is he didn’t get it quite right. He lost track of what his own strengths were, and that proves to be the movie’s undoing. Still, what he made will be appreciated in a future time when movies are even dumber and product placement-driven than they are now. As the prophet Adam Ant once said, you may not like it now, but you will.
There’s not a whole lot to look forward to on the single-disc release of “The Fountain.” In fact, only one special feature appears (the one-hour documentary “Inside the Fountain: Death & Rebirth), but short of explaining the movie’s message, it does an excellent job of offering fans an inside look at the making of the film. Covering several aspects of the production on all three time periods in the film (as well as the initial pre-production from 2001), “Death & Rebirth” shows just how hard director Darren Aronofsky worked to get his vision on the big screen. Of course, a director’s commentary would have been much appreciated, but perhaps that particular extra is being saved for a future release. Come to think of it, this has Criterion written all over it.