It’s all that Deepak fuckin’ Chopra’s fault. Most things are when you think about it. How else to explain the profusion of bullshititis that permeates the entire world these days? It’s a great gig if you can get it. Cherry pick a bunch of half-arsed ideas from the last few thousand years worth of religious belief, mix ’em in with a bit of materialistic endorsement designed to make people feel good about their slavishness to consumer culture, give a cursory nod to modern science by inserting a few quixotic links to quantum physics, sprinkle a bit of faux-esoteric terminology over the top, and there you have it: a big steaming pile of new age “spirituality” – a shopping list summary of the worst philosophical ideas ever conceived of by the human mind. The only genuine talent you need for this kind of thing is one for self-publicity. In other words, you need to be shameless enough to pass such snake oil pig-swill off as “profundity”. That’s Deepak Chopra for you. Darren Aronofsky, on the other hand, is not so easy to dislike. At the very least, he does have a modicum of talent. Even if his movie, The Fountain, is not very good and equates portentous mumbo jumbo with depth – a most Choprakian conceit. Now I don’t buy for a minute that Chopra actually believes in half the crapola he spouts. But the thing is, Aronofsky really does appear to believe in his own schtick. This movie is so naively earnest and heartfelt that you almost want to forgive it, even when it’s indulging in the worst kind of new age mystical wankery, which it frequently does. Frankly, however, forgiveness is not counted among the virtues here at The Grand Inquisitor. If something looks like bullshit and smells like bullshit, then bullshit is what it is, however sincerely it was intended.
What you basically have here is three convoluted plot strands that are supposed to come together and make some sort of grand statement about humanity’s attempt to escape death. All well and good. But the three story arcs are linked together so tenuously and with such puffed up self importance, that it all becomes rather a mess. Worse, it’s a pretentious mess. None of the plot strands stand up very well by themselves. They add up to even less when they’re jammed together as clumsily as they are here, with no respect at all for the rudiments of narrative cohesion.
The central plot strand concerns the desperate efforts of a medical scientist, Tommy (Hugh Jackman) to discover a cure for a brain tumour before his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) dies from this very same condition. This is the most coherently realised and digestible portion of the film. That’s not to say that it’s very engaging. The performances of Jackman and Weisz have been praised in some quarters, but everything is delivered with such a po-faced, “look, aren’t we all getting into serious dramatic territory here!” self-consciousness that it verges on self parody. Let’s face it, it’s not much fun to watch the protracted final moments of terminal illness at the best of times, less so when it’s not much more than plot artifice. Aronofsky’s treatment of this material is all so turgid and heavy handed that the effect produced in the viewer is not so much grief or sympathy as it is weariness. As in, I’m already looking at my watch to check the running time and thinking about taking a cigarette break. The Fountain is only 96 minutes long, but it feels like a hell of a lot more.
But it’s when we get into the other two plot strands that the extent of The Fountain’s grasping contrivance really manifests itself. Y’see, it turns out the dying wife is actually a writer, and she’s working on a novel that deals with a medieval quest to find the Tree of Life, dontcha’ know? Which sorta kinda ties in with this theme of striving to escape from death that Aronofsky is pummeling us over the head with. So while the good Dr. Tommy is reading his wife’s final book, we get to see the plot unfold on the screen, NeverEnding Story style. “The Nevuh-ending stoor-ree! Ah ah ah!” Sorry, got a bit carried away there. Incidentally, guess what movie is currently scheduled for a remake? Hollywood just can’t leave ’em alone, can they? No word on whether Limahl will be brought back to perform the theme song this time around.
Anyway, as the scenes from Izzie’s book unfold, another reason for not feeling especially sympathetic to her plight is established: she’s a fucking awful writer. At least, if the storybook aspect of this film is anything to go by. These sequences appear to have been introduced in order to get a bit of an action adventure element in the movie. Again, nothing against that necessarily, but we’re talking real sub-Indiana Jones territory here. We see Hugh Jackman facing off against some Mayan warriors in a couple of dimly lit, blurrily edited action sequences. As far as adventure stories go, there’s not much to quicken the pulse. But then, it’s really only a device to get us to the third – and weirdest – plot strand, which involves a shaven headed Jackman floating through space with The Tree of Life in a magic bubble, eating bits of bark and carving tattoos onto himself. It’s in these sequences that the film really plums the depths of psuedo-metaphysical gibberish. We’re even treated to extensive use of such images as this one:
Like, hand me the love beads and light me an incense stick, man, because this movie is cosmic. Whether all the stuff with Jackman as an intergalactic Grasshopper Kane floating through the nebula is supposed to be taken as something that the character is actually experiencing, or intended purely as a visual metaphor, is one of those things that will be eternally debated. Among the fans who are prepared to take this movie seriously, at any rate. I must confess that I don’t really care. No matter what the interpretation, these sequences are ridiculous balderdash. I’ve read some reviews that have actually compared The Fountain to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Preposterous. Kubrick’s science fiction opus is a majestic, visually poetic masterpiece that conjures up a genuine sense of wonder. The Fountaindoes not conjure up much beyond the kind of imagery you can find in any New Age trinket shop. Y’know, those places that sell magic crystals and that sort of thing. If you frequent those shops and buy this kind of stuff, then this might be the movie for you.
You can say that this movie is pretty to look at… I guess. But it’s pretty to look at in the same sense that a department store Christmas display is pretty to look at, in that it’s really just glittering and garish and desperate for attention, rather than possessing any genuine visual elegance.
It might sound like I’m being flippant. I will honestly say that I tried hard to be patient with this film. I stayed with it until the end, hoping that it would all pay off in some fashion that would allow me to forgive all the baloney I was being subjected to. And it didn’t. Look, making a film with a fractured narrative structure involving intervalic leaps through time and space is all well and good. But it has to be handled with a sense of skill and purpose. In The Fountain it just feels as if Aronofsky is trying too hard to make something that is special and unique. It’s convoluted and opaque for its own sake, not because this adds anything of worth to the movie. Deliberate obscuration does not make for profundity. It’s only the masquerade of profundity. This is a movie that thinks it has a lot more to say than it actually does.
In some respects, I feel a sense of misgiving for slamming The Fountain. I’ve made a habit of vilifying Hollywood and its directors for relentlessly churning out formulaic drivel, and when a guy finally comes along who is really willing to put his balls on the chopping block with a risky project like this one, he gets burned for it. The scale of Aronofsky’s ambition is not in any doubt – it’s his execution that leaves a lot to be desired. This is a movie that must have seemed like a much better idea in Aronofsky’s imagination than what has actually been realised on the screen.
The Fountainbombed at the box office and was met with a querulous critical reception. Rather predictably, however, there is already a critical revision underway on the part of a small but dedicated cult following. Predictably I say, because The Fountain has all the trappings – if not the actual merits – of an overlooked gem. It’s different. It’s ambitious. It’s almost wilfully “difficult”. There’s a puzzle in there to be figured out, if you can be bothered with it. But being esoteric, obscure or original does not in itself necessarily make for a good film. In this case, the obscurantism is a substitute for actual depth. The movie’s fans, of course, will cry out that I “just didn’t get it”. I would rather suggest that there’s not actually a hell of a lot to get. For all the convoluted artifice of The Fountain, the basic “point” of the story is actually pretty simple. It’s only the resort to portentous mumbo jumbo that will fool some into believing that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Hey, we’re back to Deepak Chopra again. The Fountainis an exercise in selling snake oil. Whether or not you’re prepared to buy it might tell you something about your general susceptibility to the kind of psychobabble that characterises our age.