Monday, November 20, 2006

The Fountain

If you were too young or too old to get swept up in the cultural tsunami of the Sixties, you missed a lot of good times and the rare opportunity to be part of a nationwide movement suffused with hope, idealism, and love for your fellow man.

But there was a side to the Sixties they don’t talk about on VH-1 retrospectives or classic rock stations: the self-righteous, intellectually flabby side. The side that made people spout so much gaseous nonsense about things like spirituality, unconditional love, and ancient cultures they knew almost nothing about but spoke of with pompous reverence.

I’ve been thinking about that lately because I just saw The Fountain, an anachronistic gloss on the half-baked, trippy stuff that used to pass for deep thinking back in the day.

A large part of The Fountain consists of watching Hugh Jackman float through a beautifully art-directed cosmos in an oversized bubble that looks like a snow globe without the snow. (I had to read the press kit to learn that it’s a 26th-century spaceship so futuristic it has no controls or source of power. Which they decided to do, you see, because those knobs and panels would just “get in the way of that amazing view.” Dig it.) Wearing what look like silk pajamas, his head shaved for that beatific yogi look, Jackman pads pacifically around his little bubble or assumes the lotus position, as content as a cow though his only companions are an impressive-looking but nonverbal Tree of Life and the ghost of his dead wife, the annoyingly saintly Izzi.

The bubble boy sequences are just one of three melodramatic stories writer/director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) keeps leaping between, in a romance novel-ish way. All three star Jackman as a man trying to find the key to immortality and spend eternity with his love, Rachel Weisz.

In the present-day and futuristic segments, Jackman and Weisz play a married couple, Thomas and Izzi. In the third story – a book written by the 21st-century Izzi, which we see acted out as Thomas reads it – he’s a 16th-century conquistador in Inquisition-era Spain and she is his embattled (and, of course, super-hot) queen. In that story, he leaves Spain for a Mayan jungle, where he nearly winds up as a human sacrifice (bummer, man) before finding the Mayans’ sacred Tree of Life, which later winds up in 26th-century Thomas’ spaceship.

Confused? Join the crowd. In the sold-out theater where I saw it, half the audience was tittering on the way out and the other half seemed to be apologizing for not having understood it.

Not that any of its elements are hard to understand in isolation. On the contrary, artless writing and frequent repetition makes individual scenes achingly obvious. The first time we see Izzi ask Thomas to go for a walk and he rejects her to go back to work, for example, the scene feels familiar – carpe diem and all that. By the time it’s been replayed for what seems like the 15th time, you ache for a remote with a fast-forward button. There are also far too many pseudo-profound statements about the grand significance of death. “We struggle all our lives to become born, to be worthy of our deaths,” says 21st-century Thomas’ boss, Lilli (Ellyn Burstyn), in a eulogy that might have been written by that Sixties icon turned self help-tinged guru, Ram Dass.

The film’s lush, gold-toned look is the best thing about it, making the case for the beauty and wonder of life more effectively than the dialogue, the plot, or the many lugubrious close-ups. Even the cinematography can get annoying, as the camera does pointlessly showy things like starting a scene upside down and then flipping over. The light shone on Weisz is annoyingly unsubtle too, growing so intense that it washes out every feature but her blue eyes and pillowy lips and makes her glow like the celluloid saint she’s in danger of becoming, after The Constant Gardener and now this.

The filmmakers do one nice bit with the sound, sending 21st-century Thomas out of a hospital where Izzi lies, deathly ill, into an utterly silent world – no music, no ambient sound, no nothing. But too much of the time, they leave annoyingly generic, vaguely New Age-y music pulsating in the background.

Tighter editing might have helped, since the repeated lines and scenes and all those lingering close-ups of tear-filled eyes make it hard, after a while, to empathize with Thomas’ grief over losing his adored wife, let alone with his zeal to find a way to “stop aging, stop dying. But in the end, I suspect, no amount of artistry could have saved this simplistic script.

Remember Siddartha? The Fountain makes it look deep.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

A lot of the talk about the fictional Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, one of British social satirist Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedic alter egos, centers around who Baron Cohen is lampooning when he puts on Borat’s cheap suit, stiff smile, and bushy mustache and lumbers forth to meet an unsuspecting world. Is Baron Cohen making fun of Kazakh backwardness, as an offended Kazakh government initially assumed, or of American hypocrisy, as the Kazakhs recently claimed to have realized?

Baron Cohen started filming Borat and his comedic cousins -- Ali G, a faux Jamaican-spouting wannabe gangster and TV talk show host, and Bruno, a simpering fashion reporter -- for British TV. His recent shift to the U.S. seems to be more about expanding his market than aiming at a new satiric target, since the essence of his act remains unchanged. In his wonderfully funny and unpreachily insightful new movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, as in his British and HBO TV shows, he puts one of his blissfully unself-aware characters in front of a camera and let us watch while other people react to his ignorance, bigotry, and socially inappropriate behavior.