Director and screenwriter Darren Aronofsky made his mark with the cult favorite "Pi" (1998). Now he's taken a Cook's tour of world religions, and all we get is "The Fountain," a witches' brew of pretension, daffy spirituality and imitation profundity.
Shot with a loving attention to detail, the film chronicles three quests for immortality across three centuries. At the core of each is the love story of a threatened female and a man sworn to save her from the clutches of death. Bouncing back and forth from 16th-century South America to a government-funded research lab and a spherical terrarium that doubles as a spaceship, this delirious attempt at mythmaking is often visually arresting, but never transcends its comic-book take on matters of cosmic significance. (The original screenplay, tossed aside after Brad Pitt walked away from the project, already has been turned into a graphic novel.)
A cross between Stanley Kubrick's "2001" and Douglas Sirk's delicious 1954 soaper, "Magnificent Obsession," "The Fountain" is moving only as a testament to Aronofsky's determination to get his half-baked vision before the public.
In all three stories, Hugh Jackman plays the part of the questing male. In the first, he's a conquistador searching for the biblical tree of life, which has unaccountably migrated from Mesopotamia to the jungles of New Spain, where it is guarded by a fierce host of Mayan warriors. He's there at the behest of his lady love, Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz), whom the Grand Inquisitor has sentenced to death.
In the second story, Jackman plays the research oncologist husband of stricken wife, Izzi (Weisz again). He's on the brink of discovering a revolutionary cure. ("I've never seen that adhesion pattern," an assistant marvels while examining test results.) Finally, head shaved and body draped in silken loungewear, Jackman pilots his transparent spaceship toward a nebula identified with the Mayan underworld of Xibalba. Weisz does not figure prominently in this sequence, as her character has turned into a sick tree, a development that in no way slackens the intensity of Jackman's love. The cure for the tree's rot is somewhere in that nebula.
In "The Fountain," immemorial human longings are thus given shape in a mash-up of the Bible, Mayan religion, Hollywood-style science and Buddhism (in his last incarnation, Jackman's bald-headed character is much given to the lotus position). In spite of its all-too-evident aspirations for universality, the movie ultimately is a very American concoction, secure in the belief that by mixing a tad of this with a splash of that, a spiritual melting pot satisfying to all will be the result. In fact, however, the appeal of "The Fountain" probably will be limited to the Myst and "Matrix" crowd.
To compensate for the choppiness produced by the divergent plotlines, Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique have labored to bring a visual unity to the movie, often with striking results. A shot of Jackman's car hurtling toward a looming city skyline, for example, is echoed some minutes later by a shot of the conquistador spurring his horse toward the Mayan pyramid where the tree of life grows. Throughout the film, shadows predominate. The palette is consistently austere, almost to the point of pedantry; it's a rare moment in "The Fountain" when colors other than brown, blue or yellow are on the screen. Although the compositional skill on display is impressive, it can't do much to overcome the loopiness of the story. A double handful of beautiful shots, however carefully linked, do not add up to a good movie.
What most lends unity to this hodgepodge is Jackman himself, who in one guise or another is in every scene. Fortunately, he is charismatic and versatile enough to pull it off. Modulating from soldier to lab cowboy to meditative sage, his evolving character makes the film seem like a brief for the taming of masculinity.
Ultimately, however, that will not put off the male teens most likely to be drawn to "The Fountain." In the end, the movie tells us that it's man or, perhaps Aronofsky would have us say, the male principle in creation that does all the cool, heroic stuff. Woman is around to inspire, to be protected and to be adored. Like the garish cosmology pervading the film, that fits right into the fantasy world of many an adolescent boy. (PG-13) 96 min. ** S