I have a friend named Dave who went to the Hollywood press junket for “The Fountain,” got to interview Hugh Jackman and Darren Aronofsky, saw the film early and declared it “the best film of the year…and the next three years!” His enthusiasm was infectious, as the forty second teaser trailer that came out the year before (with its pounding drums and dreamlike imagery) was one of the best ever produced. My wife and I finally saw the film and, unlike Dave, found it frustrating and off-putting. Without a doubt, Aronofsky’s passion project, his first after the extraordinary “Requiem For A Dream,” sports ambitions that reaches into the cosmos but, ten years later, still feels half-finished and unsatisfying.
Hugh Jackman stars as Tom, a neuroscientist who, in 2006, comes across a medical find when a fragment from a tree in Guatemala demonstrates healing properties. Tom pursues this radical discovery at the cost of his relationship to Izzi (Rachel Weisz), who is dying. We meet a conquistador, also played by Jackman, who, in 1500, is ordered by his queen (Weisz again) to pursue The Tree of Life as described in the Bible. Then, we have scenes of Jackman as a bald, white clad space traveler in the year 2500, floating through the cosmos in a massive bubble, along with the Tree of Life. These three plot strands unfold on top of one another and work well as separate entities, each building intrigue and offering gorgeous, precisely framed imagery.
The washed out brown hue gives this the look of a rich graphic novel. There are images that overlap and, in a touch William Cameron Menzies would have loved, set pieces and spaces have been re-used to create both symmetry and synergy in how the three worlds are visually connected. My favorite visual- how the fine hairs on the Tree of Life are framed in a manner to reflect the hair on Weisz’ neck.
Jackson and Weisz are excellent, allowing their characters’ pain and obsessions to come through, whether their roles are accessible or wrapped in the far-out mythmaking of the narrative. The same year Jackman gave his career best performance in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” few caught his full throttle, emotionally rich work here. Weisz, likewise, is both vulnerable and angelic, her features rarely captured with such grand affection.
Aronofsky famously attempted to get this film made years earlier, with a $70 million budget and Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as his leads. Reportedly, Pitt had “creative differences” with Aronofsky and left the film, which shut down. Eventually, Aronofsky made this lower budgeted, pared down version, which clocks in at a tidy 95 minutes. There are moments here that appear to have been lifted for other movies, ranging from “Immortals” to “Cloud Atlas” (which reflects some of Aronofsky’s themes and mad hatter aspirations). Curiously, Pitt and Blanchett made “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” years later, another love story dealing with the themes of love and time and the way they offer unfair, imbalanced amounts to those who seek them.
My problem with “The Fountain” isn’t that it’s so strange and unintentionally goofy. Its biggest flaw is that there’s no third act. Once we get to the ending, in which the three plot lines intersect, it becomes a flashy muddle. Aronofsky intends to lift his audience up into a rapturous nirvana, but the concluding scenes are so puzzling, not only do we not have an ending but the overall point becomes murky. It isn’t made clear if the ending is triumphant, a spiritual catharsis of sorts, or a piece of fiction within the story. Interpretations can be made, though sifting through the narrative ambiguity doesn’t answer simple, core questions: is Izzi’s conquistador tale fiction or did it actually occur? Is the space traveler heading towards doom or a spiritual re-birth? Why did we need a detour to the Spanish Inquisition? If Hugh Jackman defeats a bad guy by floating in the lotus position, is it okay to laugh? Dave, was this really the best movie of 2006…and the next three years?