Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain has been a conundrum for me since I first saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival: How to write about a film which so clearly has its heart in the right place, which the director created with such passion, and which works so well on certain levels, when its flaws keep it from being as great a film as it could have been? I wanted to love this film on every level -- wanted to love it so much, in fact, that I saw it a second time at a Seattle screening, just to give it another chance. And perhaps it's partly a problem of expectation: If I'd gone into the film expecting not to like it, then maybe it would have blown me away.
The Fountain is a myth about the elusive search for the Fountain of Youth, here represented by a Tree of Life. The story follows one man, Tom, across a thousand years and three lifetimes, on his quest to find eternal life and be with his love, Izzi, forever. Tom is played by Hugh Jackman in all three parts.
In his first incarnation, he is Tomas, a 16th-century conquistador, unflinchingly loyal to Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz), who sends him on a quest to find the Tree of Life, which will save her from the Inquisitor who seeks to destroy her. On his quest, Tomas must journey to an ancient Mayan ruin which supposedly guards the Tree of Life, whose sap is the fountain of youth sought by adventurers throughout the ages. In his second incarnation, he is Tommy Creo, a scientist racing against the clock to find a cure for the cancer that is consuming his wife, Izzi (also played by Weisz) before it consumes her. In the third, he is Tom, a 26th-century astronaut journeying to Xibalba, a distant nebula said by the Mayans to be the portal to the afterlife.
I have to note here that Jackman's performance across the roles is a highlight of the film, buoying it up through its rougher and more confusing moments. The passion he brings to the roles -- especially as Tommy, who is so blinded by love that he can't see to let go -- is the thread that ties the disparate pieces together. Weisz is luminously lovely as Tomas' queen and Tommy's wife, Izzi, but I couldn't help pondering, as I was watching her, what an actress like Naomi Watts or Laura Linney might have brought to the role. Ellen Burstyn is under-used as Tommy's boss; she is fabulous while she is on-screen, but I wanted more of her, and I wanted to see her across all three of his lifetimes as a pivotal character.
There's a lot of spirituality and philosophy interwoven in the film, but Aronofsky transcends individual religions by keeping his focus on the search for immortality, the implications of failing to see and appreciate what we have in the moment, and the deeper question of whether aging and dying are simply a part of what makes us human, rather than something we should fear. The premise of the story is intriguing, the character of Tomas/Tommy/Tom is challenging and complex, the visuals are simply stunning, and the music is a beautifully interwoven component of the organic whole. So what's not to love?
What keeps The Fountain from being a really great film is that it's so heavily based on the visual and pretty effects, and it wants so much to be clever, with almost everything you see or hear being a clue to something else that will happen later (or that has happened before -- it gets kind of hard to keep track of when and where we are, with all the bouncing around time), that the idea of a simply told story gets lost in the shuffle. The first third of the film or so is actually quite good. I've seen the film twice -- once at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I was horribly disappointed in it, and again at a recent screening to give it another shot. Both times, the first third of the film intrigued me and drew me into the story; somewhere around the 30-minute mark, things start to go downhill, and as we head into the film's final segment, things start to unravel -- not in the ideas being presented, so much, but more in the way in which they are implemented.
I think it's worth noting that both times that I saw the film (both packed screenings, one a festival crowd in Toronto and one a local Seattle crowd at a promo screening), people in the audience laughed out loud at the exact same pivotal moment toward the end of the film. The scene is not supposed to be funny -- it's the penultimate moment of the film, and we should we swept away by it -- but for some reason it just comes across as laughable, which is not, I think, what Aronofsky was going for.
All that said, however, I do have to say that the film has stuck with me and intrigued me more than most films I see; I've thought and thought about the film since September, and the film's ideas have been simmering in my head since I caught the more recent screening. There are some fascinating ideas being played around with in The Fountain, and if the implementation of them gets a bit wobbly sometimes, I still have to credit Aronofsky for starting with the seed of an idea and creating a film that is unlike anything else out there right now. It takes a certain tenacity to make films that go against the Hollywood grain, and Aronofsky deserves accolades for being willing to make the film he wanted to make, and for not settling for making the boring films the Hollywood machine churns out with relentless predictability.
Nothing about The Fountain is predictable, but the film's structural problems are going to lose a certain chunk of the audience who won't be willing to go back and read production notes or see the film a second or third time seeking to understand it. There's a fine line between not spoon-feeding information to your audience versus giving them so few crumbs to follow that the dots don't always connect to create a cohesive whole. Nonetheless, in spite of its flaws, The Fountain is a film worth seeing, especially if you like enigmatic films with spiritual themes -- and aren't adverse to exercising your brain cells to try to figure it all out.