I have no problem with downbeat cinema, and anyone familiar with my taste in film will be able to attest to this. "The Fountain" goes one step further, wallowing so heavily in a pall of sadness that watching it becomes uncomfortable bordering on painful. If he knows how to do anything, writer-director Darren Aronofsky (2000's "Requiem for a Dream") is skilled at disturbing his viewers to their very core. Having taken the better part of six years to get made, "The Fountain" was Aronofsky's passion project, originally set up as a $70-million picture starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. When the studio got understandable cold feetthere isn't a shred of commercial viability in the movieit was placed into turnaround until Hugh Jackman's career took off and he accepted the lead role. With a budget slashed almost in half, it is hard to imagine how "The Fountain" from five years ago might have differed from the final product in 2006, although the skimpy 96-minute running time points to suspected script cuts.
A ponderous, ruminative drama spanning one thousand years, multiple continents, and different planes of existence, "The Fountain" has the makings of an epic masterwork, but not the scope. The characters and storytelling approach are stripped to their bare essentials, making for an inscrutable experience that, if it all remarkably comes together in the end, will cause a sizable portion of the audience to mentally check out long before they get to the final scenes. A film about life, death and learning to let go, "The Fountain" travels some risky and rarely touched-upon terrain, and it does it in a way that is almost morbidly too authentic to bear.
The outcome of director Darren Aronofsky's years of work are destined to polarize people; some will be angry for not understanding it, others will be merely bewildered, and those that have paid careful attention will be torn between loving and hating it. There is no denying that Aronofsky has made a powerful, stirring motion picture, but the tone with which he uses to get his point across is emotionally dishonest and thematically deceptive. For a movie intended by the finale to bring solace to those who have ever lost a loved one or are grappling with their own mortality, "The Fountain" is needlessly grim and woefully discomforting. Instead of putting the viewer at ease about death, the choice to set the movie in an off-kilter sci-fi world filled with alien landscapeseven the present day material looks like it was made in an alternate universeonly makes the subject matter all the more frightening and uneasy.
In what looks to be modern times, scientist Tom (Hugh Jackman) is on the brink of discovering an exotic plant with the healing powers to reverse the effects of a brain tumor (and the aging process) in an ape. As he takes a wait-and-see approach to his primate patient, Tom is struggling to come to grips with his beloved wife Izzi's (Rachel Weisz) quickly escalating terminal illness. Desperate to save her life, he begins entertaining the idea of finding a cure, not only for her ailment but for the act of dying itself. Meanwhile, Tom starts to read the novel Izzi has almost finished writing and, in turn, is swept up in the medieval tale of a warrior (also played by Jackman) from Spain sent to find the Tree of Life and gain eternal life by drinking its sap. Interspersed throughout is a post-apocalyptic future where a man (Jackman again) who may or may not be Tom waits to be saved next to the same Tree of Life as they swirl across outer space.
"The Fountain" begins as the story of the search for the fountain of youth, but this serves as a fanciful plot gimmick to what is both an intimate and universal portrayal of a man finding a way to accept his wife's impending demise while releasing himself of the fear he has of death. The film does a splendid job of ratcheting up emotion and personifying the very fight for survivaldeath as in intangible feeling and occurrence permeates across the screen in an unshakable way that is difficult to explainbut there is no joy or light or recourse to any of it. The movie doesn't need to be a comedic romp obviously, but humor is a natural aspect to the human condition that director Darren Aronofsky tragically overlooks. His two lead characters and the love story between them exist in an insular bubble where it seems like they are but morose products of a screenplay waiting to evolve and develop beyond barebones conditions.
Credit must go to Hugh Jackman (2006's "The Prestige
") and Rachel Weisz (2005's "Constantine
") for igniting their romance with the spark of people really, truly in love. As Tom and Izzi, Jackman and Weisz do not have the privilege of full-rounded charactersnothing is learned about either of them except that he is an overworked scientist and she is a wide-eyed dreamerbut their interactions, so simple and yet meaning so much, are those of kindred spirits meant to be together. Jackman's intensely dramatic performance is brave and unashamed, and his reactions to losing Izzi hit home with a reality the rest of picture is in short supply of. Weisz has less to do, but the indomitable spirit she brings to Izzi is the heart of the story. In a memorable but underwritten supporting turn, Ellen Burstyn (2006's "The Wicker Man
") is warm and earnest as Tom's trusted senior colleague Dr. Lillian Guzetti.
Aesthetically underlit but visually interesting, "The Fountain" is a curiosity piece above all else. It is certain to alienate most of its viewers but will probably gain a cult following down the road by serious fans of science-fiction and the filmmaker's work. For now, it is an ambitious project that never quite achieves its substantial aspirations. It has been said that no good movie is depressing, but every bad movie is. Whether or not this is true is open to debate, but "The Fountain" falls right down the middle, and its constantly bleak insistences and refusal to lighten up make for an unpleasant hour and a half. Next time around, it wouldn't be a terrible idea for Aronofsky to allow his characters the chance to smile.