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Love's Labors

Jackman and tree in space (Warner Bros.)

The Fountain tells a love story that spans 1,000 years, and the movie is one that the young writer-director Darren Aronofsky (who previously made Pi and Requiem for a Dream) has been trying to get made for what seems like just as long. (It was first announced as a 2002 production, with a different cast and a higher budget, and has been subject to myriad delays and false starts since then.) Watching the finished product, you can hardly believe that in all that time nobody had the good sense to talk Aronofsky out of it. Part dewey-eyed paperback romance, part acid-trip planetarium show, this extravagantly silly movie comes on like the second coming of 2001, and there are enough fancy shots of Hugh Jackman seated in a yoga position while floating through the solar system inside an embryonic bubble that you can imagine the superlatives soon to appear in the movie’s ad campaign: “Brilliant!” “Visionary!” “A mind-blowing sci-fi head trip!” In truth, The Fountain is closer to one of those vomitous fantasy romances, like Somewhere in Time or this past summer’s The Lake House, where the two lovers are so destined to be together that neither time nor space nor plain old common sense can keep them apart. The only viewers who risk having their minds blown are those who didn’t have much of one to start with.

Aronofsky has said in past interviews that all of his movies are, to some extent, about the search for God, and what gave his first two features a wonderfully paranoid tension was their feel for people feverishly wrestling with life’s big, existential questions (whether they hoped to find the answers in numerology or at the end of a heroin needle). The Fountain, on the other hand, is more like a movie made for those people who don’t just seek God but who find Him — in their breakfast cereal, or in an industrial water stain. It’s a movie with nothing much to say except that love is all around and maybe it can even set you free.

Set, like 2001, over three distinct time periods, The Fountain begins in 16th-century Spain, where a brave, Ponce de León-esque conquistador (Jackman) journeys deep into a Maya jungle to find the proverbial Fountain of Youth — here represented as a literal Tree of Life — and, in turn, bring immortality to his embattled Queen (Rachel Weisz). Flash forward a few centuries and Jackman is a brilliant research scientist testing experimental cancer drugs on laboratory chimpanzees in the hope of saving his dying wife (Weisz again), who happens to be an author writing a book about a brave, Ponce de León-esque conquistador who . . . . Finally, we vault into the future — we know it’s the future because Jackman has gone all bald and star-child-looking on us — where Weisz has turned into the Tree of Life (or something like that), and Jackman sits around all day eating her bark and drinking her jizzy sap. “Don’t worry, we’re almost there,” he keeps telling her, apparently referring to the reunion of their eternal souls, though I kept hoping against hope that he might be talking about the end of the movie.

In real life, Aronofsky is engaged to his leading lady, and his infatuation shows. Weisz has never looked this luminescent onscreen, especially during the middle section, where her impetuous temperament and boyish, cancer-cropped hair make her seem like some sort of extraterrestrial nymph briefly gracing this world with her presence. You see how someone could fall in love with her. And Aronofsky, to his credit, does something with Jackman that I don’t think any other filmmaker has done before — he convinces you that the preening Australian star cares deeply about someone other than himself. But it’s mostly for naught, because while the central relationship in The Fountain covers a lot of ground, it doesn’t really go anywhere — whether we’re in the throes of the Inquisition or in interstellar orbit, we’re effectively watching two beautiful people who are so mad about each other that, while they may quibble or not spend enough time together, they harbor no real conflict. Which, I’m afraid, is about as illuminating as watching the two people in the row in front of you neck for two hours.

The Fountain is being sold primarily to sci-fi geeks, but it may find its most receptive audience among middle-aged lonely-hearts who believe that love means never having to say you’re sorry and who pine for a partner willing to venture into the outer reaches of the galaxy for them. For those of us who prefer to live on planet Earth, there’s Jeff Lipsky’s Flannel Pajamas, which also traces the arc of a marriage, albeit one that lasts not a millennium but merely two years. The marriage in question is based on Lipsky’s own, which, judging from the evidence here, began to come undone almost as soon as it had come together. And Lipsky seems intent on retracing each and every agonizing step along the way, from the first bloom of attraction to those two dreaded words: “I’m leaving.”

They meet in a New York City diner on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend. He, Stuart (fast-talking Justin Kirk), is a successful Broadway publicist who seems to have life all figured out. She, Nicole (freckle-faced Julianne Nicholson), is a transplanted Minnesota farm girl drowning in college debt and unsure of what she wants out of life. Though they seem to have little in common, they hit it off right away, and as the night wears on, they lose track of time — and themselves — amid currents of snappy banter:

Stuart: “I was married once before.”

Nicole: “What happened?”

Stuart: “I turned 20.”

In a way, it’s all downhill from there. They move in together. He pops the question. She accepts. He meets her parents, awkwardly — a Jew in Goyland. She wants kids. He doesn’t, at least not right away. She accuses him of being cool to her family and friends, and she may be right. He tells her she can’t get a dog, then says she can, but only if she stops talking about having a kid. And so on. Admittedly, I’ve never been married myself, but I’ve been around the relationship block enough times to know that, usually, when you start bargaining between a dog and a kid, things are headed in a bad direction.

Flannel Pajamas is probably one of the worst date movies ever made, and I mean that as a compliment to Lipsky, whose storied career as a movie distributor includes stints with such maverick independent filmmakers as John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh and Victor Nuñez, and who is clearly after the kind of emotional honesty and candor that permeates those directors’ work. In his second time behind the camera (the first was 1997’s little seen Childhood’s End), he’s made the kind of independent feature that has become something of an endangered species — neither a miniature version of a Hollywood programmer nor a glib “calling card” picture but a deeply felt, confessional, warts-and-all movie made for no other reason than its maker’s need to make it.

The results are far from perfect: For one thing, Lipsky is so far from being a fluid visual storyteller that the garishly lit, appallingly composed Flannel Pajamas makes another two-hander talkfest Lipsky famously distributed — My Dinner With Andre — seem like Lawrence of Arabia by comparison. But he writes (sometimes overwrites) great dialogue, draws terrific work from both Kirk and Nicholson and has a knack for crafting scenes so knowing and lived-in that they are frequently painful to watch. (One third-act encounter between Stuart and his mother-in-law — played brilliantly by Rebecca Schull — is as revealing about the latent prejudices lurking behind middle America’s genteel façade as anything in Borat.) So I guess what I’m saying is this: Flannel Pajamas isn’t for the faint of heart, but it has truths in it that are not often found at the movies these days. “Love is not as important as empathy,” Lipsky recently told The New York Times when asked what his marriage taught him. When he has a spare moment, he should give Darren Aronofsky a call.

THE FOUNTAIN | Written and directed by DARREN ARONOFSKY, from a story by ARONOFSKY and ARI HANDEL | Produced by ERIC WATSON, ARNON MILCHAN and IAIN SMITH | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide

FLANNEL PAJAMAS | Written and directed by JEFF LIPSKY | Produced by JONATHAN GRAY, BRIAN DEVINE and JASON ORANS | Released by Gigantic Pictures | Nuart

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