Warner Bros. Pictures
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, and Ellen Burstyn
I feel for Darren Aronofsky; truly, I do. For the better part of the decade, the director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream has been trying to get The Fountain made. When studio funding was pulled on his first attempt back in 2002, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett signed on to star, he reportedly disappeared for a while in a state of abject depression. Filmmakers often find themselves at the mercy of accountants, and Aronofsky's passion for the project was sorely tested by being forced to start from scratch — new sets, new budget, new cast, new script.
Yet start from scratch he did — and I'd love to believe that it was all worth the effort. The version of The Fountain that finally makes its way to screens looks exactly like what its history suggests. It's deeply personal. It's deeply idiosyncratic. And it's deeply compromised.
He begins with a conceit that had to have the number-crunchers' sphincters clenching from the outset: a centuries-spanning narrative that dashes back and forth among three different points in history. In contemporary America, a neurological researcher named Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) is racing against time to find a breakthrough treatment for brain tumors. It is the bleak prognosis facing his own terminally ill wife, Izzi (Rachel Weisz) that drives Tom, even to the point where he's willing to try out an experimental compound from a Central American tree. Izzi, meanwhile, has been writing a story based on her research into the Mayan culture, and we see snippets of that story about a Spanish conquistador (also played by Jackman) seeking the fountain of youth at the request of Queen Isabella (Weisz). And also meanwhile, in a distant future, another Jackman-portrayed character — this time bald and apparently able to levitate — floats skyward in a clear globe on a mysterious mission.
Aronofsky is out to comprehend nothing less than the nature of mortality itself, so you've got to score him points right off the bat either for ridiculous arrogance or stones the size of medicine balls. He keeps the story from steering off into the realm of the purely ethereal, anchoring it in Tom's sense of helplessness over his wife's condition. "Death is a disease," he states matter-of-factly at one point, and Jackman's performance effectively captures a scientist completely incapable of making peace with the inevitability of death.
It's a thoughtful, ultimately human tale — but it occupies an awkward middle ground. From the start, it's evident that Aronofsky has an epic vision for The Fountain as a meditation on a quest for eternal life that has spanned eras. And it's equally evident that he's not able to achieve the sense of scale he truly wants. The conquistador segments in particular feel pinched and underdeveloped, as though they were filmed on sets the size of a suburban living room. The futuristic portions achieve a bit more of a sense of grandeur, but there's a connective tissue missing that would pull all the elements together.
If that makes it sound like The Fountain is ultimately confusing or difficult to understand, that's not the case. In fact, on a certain level the underlying ideas are pretty straightforward — which is sort of the problem. A movie like The Fountain can attempt to blow your mind with a philosophical cinematic tone poem, or it can immerse itself in the personal struggles of its characters. Aronofsky does a little bit of both, and thereby doesn't really do either one enough to give the film an identity. It's a frustrating, incomplete collision between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terms of Endearment.
You've got to know from the director's previous works that the whole thing is going to be a little bit ... out there. Aronofsky is a gifted stylist as a director, and he comes up with several impressive images here — the queen's candlelit hall, the plasma rain that drifts down behind the heavens-bound sphere. There's also one remarkable use of sound design, as Aronofsky muffles the street noise around Tom to suggest his complete disconnection from the world. But as you absorb all these moments, you've got to believe that either they're going to add up in a way that doesn't feel like mere beard-stroking, or that the director's going to stroke that beard with both hands. Aronofsky wanted to compose an opera about humanity's struggle to come to terms with the infinite. They only gave him enough money to complete a chamber quartet.