Backburnered four years ago after original star Brad Pitt pulled out, then long in the making, “The Fountain,” third feature by one-time wunderkind Darren Aronofsky (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream”), made more of a splatter than a splash on Venice’s Lido with its world premiere. Greeted by booing at its first press unspooling, pic’s hippy trippy space odyssey-meets-contempo-weepie-meets-conquistador caper starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz suffers from a turgid script and bears all the signs of edit-suite triage to produce a still-incoherent 95 minutes. A gush of negative word of mouth will keep B.O. figures at a trickle.
Overpraised for the then-hip, now-dated use of pseudo-science in “Pi,” and for the visual excess he deployed in the grungy “Requiem,” helmer Aronofsky has been attached to and then detached from various big-budget studio projects over the last few years, including “Batman Begins” and “The Watchman.” “The Fountain,” written by Aronofsky and based on a story by him and Ari Handel, shows onscreen all the wear and tear of a personal project that has suffered from production fits and starts and reportedly has been cut down from a longer running time to a still tedious and repetitious hour and a half.
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Plot interleaves three stories in different time frames and switches throughout somewhat abruptly between them, although auds can parse which is going on when by paying attention to how much hair Jackman is sporting at any given time.
In the 16th century, a bearded and long-locked Jackman plays Spanish explorer Tomas, dispatched by Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz) to the New World to find the biblical Tree of Life, whose sap bestows immortality. In Central America, Tomas must battle mutinous underlings and assorted growling, war-painted Mayan extras to get to a pyramid that hides the tree, whose powers produce floral special effects Tomas wasn’t expecting.
Turns out the latter storyline is the plot of “The Fountain,” a novel being written in cursive hand in the present, or near-present by Izzi (Weisz again) who is married to Tommy (Jackman again, this time sans beard). Izzi has a terminal brain tumor, for which Tommy is working full-out to find a cure via experimental surgery on monkeys, assisted by a team of gowned-and-masked, personality-free supporting actors.
Only other character to make much of an impact is Dr. Lillian Guzetti (Ellen Burstyn, the lead in “Requiem”), the head of the research facility, who is wheeled on from time to time to warn Tommy he’s working too hard and getting sloppy. Compound extracted from a Guatemalan tree may offer a cure or at least some kind of miraculous healing power.
Last plot strand shows a now-completely bald Jackman, called Tom Creo per press notes, living inside a clear bubble traveling through space toward the Xibalba nebula, an astrological body believed by the Mayans to be the location of the underworld.
Supposedly, it’s the 26th century, and Creo’s craft is driven merely by mind-power — or, perhaps more precisely, screenwriter’s whimsy. His only company is a nearly dead tree from whose bark he gains sustenance, while he spends his days reliving memories from the 21st century of Izzi, and occasionally levitating around in the lotus position.
Visual effects, credited to a slew of different companies, are indeed striking with their nearly 3-D layers of golden haze. However, segment ultimately looks like a remake of the wormhole section of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as produced by makers of instructional videos for beginning yoga students.
More problematic is the fact that it’s hard to muster much engagement with characters who are so sketchily drawn. Izzi, for instance, is little more than a beatifically smiling presence. Weisz admittedly looks cute and pixie-like with a short-cropped hairdo, but Aronofsky hasn’t given his now real-life partner much of a role. Charismatic Jackman (and his chiseled cheekbones) does his best to carry the film through its many lulls, but it feels like a lot of time is spent watching him cry or trashing offices in frustration.
No doubt the filmmakers’ intention was to celebrate a love that transcends centuries, hence repeated use of lines, scenes and motifs. In the end, however, the effect is just monotonous, especially given overuse of Clint Mansell’s mournful orchestral score, slathered over scenes as if in hopes it will paper over the plot’s cracks.
Nevertheless, with savvy marketing “The Fountain” might yet find a niche audience, especially with softer-hearted femme viewers who will groove to the pick’s rich costumes and honeyed tones.