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The Fountain   C+

Warner Bros. Pictures / Regency Enterprises

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Darren Aronofsky (story by Aronofsky and Ari Handel)
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Mark Margolis, Sean Patrick Thomas, Cliff Curtis, Stephen McHattie.

Review by Rob Vaux

We're so used to having our plots spoon-fed to us that when a film like The Fountain disregards standard storytelling tactics, it tends to throw us for a loss. Its ambitions confound our expectations, presenting three interlocking narratives whose connections are felt rather than defined. Director Darren Aronofsky uses a sweeping visual imagination to expound upon lofty notions of love, death, and human spirituality. Stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz ground his ambitions with strong performances, linking all three stories with characters of depth and complexity. It boldly exploits the creative potential of the medium, striving for power that no other form of expression can provide. It is beautiful, haunting, and unspeakably intense -- as magisterial a piece of cinema as you're likely to see this year.

Unfortunately, it's also pretentious, self-absorbed, and not nearly as profound as it wishes to be. Its truths hold nothing that a good episode of Six Feet Under can't deliver more elegantly, and as awe-inspiring as it sometimes appears, its core contains far more style than substance. The thesis is an examination of the Fountain of Youth, posited here as an ever-blooming tree in the Central American rainforest. The tree's properties become the obsession of three men -- or is it one? -- each occupying a different era in history. In the far future, the monk-like Tommy (Jackman) travels through space in a self-sustaining bubble, along with the slowly shriveling remnants of the immortal tree. He journeys towards a nebula in some distant corner of the sky, his purpose enigmatic yet unwavering. Along the way, he dreams/hallucinates about a modern-day doctor, Tom Creo (Jackman), whose dying wife (Weisz) might be saved by the tree's healing properties if he can only synthesize a medicine in time. She calmly accepts her fate while he struggles to thwart it with every breath he can muster. Among her work is a novel she has penned, relating the tale of a Spanish conquistador, Tomas (Jackman), who seeks the tree in the New World as a way of saving his queen (Weisz) from the ravages of the Inquisition.

Are all three Toms the same? The Fountain implies so, yet their bonds are never entirely clarified. This is largely by design; Aronofsky concerns himself less with such trivial details than with the larger implications of his/their quest. In all three instances, Tom/Tommy/Tomas seeks the tree as a means of defeating death -- to renounce the fear of oblivion, and retain the joy and happiness conjured by Weisz's presence. Whether the sequences are dreams evoked by one specific setting or memories intermingled in a moment of revelation, the same pulse moves through them all. Aronofsky has always understood how cinema functions as a canvas, and his imagery here is dazzlingly fierce. The curdled yellows of the future nebula match the blinking streetlights of Tom Creo's late-night car drives and the rain-soaked torches of Tomas's desperate journey through the jungle. Though a scant 96 minutes long, The Fountain holds enough wonders for a film three times its length, and editor Jay Rabinowitz utilizes a skillful touch in binding the narrative together.

The effect can be gorgeous, and when added to the strong work of the cast, it becomes difficult to resist. But once the lights come up and the film has a chance to sink in, it feels like less than the sum of its parts. A superficiality pervades its musings, pumped up by the bombast on-screen, but ultimately neither profound nor hugely insightful. Any sophomore philosophy major is familiar with its thesis, and films with far less drive behind them have taken the concept much further. Aronofsky covers all of the bases in his meditations, but still falls victim to over-inflated pretense. The notion of attaining enlightenment by renouncing desire, the insight to see all moments as one, the revelation that death is just another form of life... yeah, that's neat and all, but most of us have heard it before. The Fountain is ultimately too self-absorbed to expand its message beyond the surface flash, creating a lot of noise over comparatively little bedrock.

Such sentiments may be unkind, especially considering the film's undeniable visual power. It wants to challenge its audience where most movies ask only passive complacency, and Aronofsky has the talent to strike us at our very core. Anyone who's seen Requiem For a Dream knows how much he can accomplish, which makes it all the more puzzling when his efforts here fall short. I'm sure it will find some passionate adherents -- moved by its thematic ambitions -- and if it can shake up the multiplex crowd lured in by Jackman's star power, so much the better. But for all the thunderous beauty on-screen, its profundities exist more in the concept than the execution. I just needed to see some additional firmament beneath its seductive shine.

Review published 11.21.2006.

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