Darren Aronofsky's debut feature, Pi, won the Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance this year, and it's easy to imagine why: Whatever its faults--and it has more than a few--it is unquestionably different. It at least takes a stab at interpolating cerebral ideas into the format of a thriller.
Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is either a genius or a madman--or, most likely, both. Holed up in a warren of electronic equipment in a New York apartment, Max nervously and compulsively investigates arcane corners of number theory, hoping to unlock the Meaning of the Universe. As he informs us more than once in voice-over: "Mathematics is the language of nature...Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers...If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge...Therefore there are patterns everywhere in nature." Of course, a close look at this syllogism tilts our view of Max more toward "madman" than "genius": Even if one charitably grants the validity of the first two premises, the third is almost certainly false, as the unpredictability of pi itself suggests. (And let's not even get into quantum theory.)
If Max is mad, however, he's not alone: Marcy (Pamela Hart), the glad-handing representative of a shadowy financial entity, is pursuing him, as is a group of messianic Orthodox Jews. Both think he can unravel (or already has) the secret pattern underlying reality. The former sees it as the key to controlling the economy; the latter, as a code for the secret name of God. (The second also involves the Ark of the Covenant, arguably making Pi a sort of indie answer to Indiana Jones.)
Or at least it appears that this is what's going on. Aronofsky makes sure we see everything through Max's eyes; and Max is prone to blackouts, neurological tics, and hallucinations, and none is totally controlled by the bouillabaisse of psychoactive medications he pops.
Aronofsky gets good value for his reported $60,000 budget, thanks in no small part to Matthew Libatique's high-contrast black-and-white cinematography. Most of the performances are at least adequate, except for Hart. But, at its center, Pi is about as convincingly cerebral as the Tim Robbins-Meg Ryan-Walter Matthau I.Q. or other Hollywood movies about "geniuses." It occasionally focuses on its "ideas," but the ideas themselves are half-baked: Pi would be more interesting if it really dealt with the scientific-theological-philosophical notions it toys with. For all its indie credentials, it's shallower than Disney's Tron, let alone Bergman's Persona. (The film also has very little to do with pi.)
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Tech freaks--or for that matter, anyone with a home computer--may also find Pi unintentionally funny. Max seems to be working with a 15-years-out-of-date, cobbled-together computer system: This might just be a sign of his weirdness--he also uses a dial phone--but it also casts doubt on his cutting-edge status. While viewers might be willing to forgive his use of 5 1/4-inch floppies, it's impossible to take seriously the new super-secret, high-tech CPU Marcy gives him.
Aronofsky seems to have been influenced at least in part by David Lynch's Eraserhead--there's a scene involving a living, disembodied brain that evokes Lynch's sense of the grotesque, but without any coherent or effective payoff. But the film that Pi deserves comparison to--a film so obscure, it's more than likely Aronofsky has never seen it--is David Blair's 1992 Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees. Blair takes on similar concepts, but, unlike Aronofsky, finds a form that fits his concerns by assembling an incredibly complex weave of words, images, and ideas; it's the visual equivalent of surrealist prose experiments, weaving together bee keeping, Cain and Abel, the history of mankind, Desert Storm, genetic coding, Masonic conspiracies, quantum reality, and a thousand other themes.
Wax--which is available on video and in some mutant form on the Internet--doesn't function as well as Pi as a conventional thriller. But if it's the thematic promise of Pi's plot that attracts you, Wax attempts the same with a more provocative approach.
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart, and Stephen Pearlman. Opens Friday.