It's no secret that The Fountain is a difficult picture. The fits and starts of the movie's production were documented in EW a few weeks ago, and even a viewer plopped down with no knowledge of the labors to bring script to screen recognizes early on in the bewildering proceedings when a 16th-century Spanish conquistador morphs into a present-day neurological scientist and then into a 26th-century spiritual cosmonaut, all of them played by Hugh Jackman with pleading eyes that there's madness, or at least a formidably dense narrative tangle, afoot. The question a curious viewer must decide as centuries collide is whether to resist writer-director Darren Aronofsky's romantic, obsessive folly or to go with it.
I went with it, twice now, and I'm as touched and charmed by its failures (for clearly, in the murk and repetitiveness of his intricate, self-absorbed imagery, there is something troubling the maker of Pi and Requiem for a Dream that has eluded his solution) as I am transfixed, at times, by its successful inventiveness and audacity. There's something as recklessly okay about The Fountain in its imperfection as there is something undeniably cockamamy; it's an entirely mood-dependent experience enhanced by identification with romantic/spiritual/kabbalistic/journal-or-blog-keeping tendencies of one's own, and ruined by impatience.
The triple-time explorer, called Tommy Creo in the present, sallies forth with one constant and its consequence, and that is the love of a beautiful woman (played by Aronofsky's real-life beloved, Rachel Weisz) and the quest to conquer death in order to be with her, always. Tommy (whose surname is Spanish, I believe, for ''I believe'') has a wife, Isabel, whom he calls Izzi (which is Brooklynese, I believe, for ''Is he or isn't he?''). Izzi is dying of a cancer that has reached her brain but left her alabaster skin radiant. Therefore the primate lab experiments Tommy and his research team are conducting are of particular urgency for the desperate husband; unexpected breakthroughs in anti-aging chemistry don't satisfy him if they don't also shrink tumors, and he butts heads with his lab boss, played (with her own fount of wisdom) by Requiem veteran Ellen Burstyn. Meanwhile, backward in time, Tomas the Conquistador sets out to discover the Fountain of Youth on behalf of his adored queen (Weisz again, in royal gowns), who is herself threatened by enemies. And in the future, Tom, the spiritual seeker with a head as bald and calm as that of Mr. Clean, floats in a translucent bubble looking for a reunion with his lost beloved, and a kind of eternal, wrinkle-free bliss.
In all three guises, from past hirsute to future hairless, Jackman beams a handsome earnestness of such uncomplicated trust in the depth of the filmmaker's philosophizing that it's hard to imagine what Brad Pitt, the originally scheduled Tomas/Tommy/Tom, would have done to convey the same passion of purpose. Licked his lips, cocked his hip, and varied his stubble?
The filmmaker is enthralled by texture. The Fountain often looks like velvet feels, and the whole thing, set to an ethereal score by Clint Mansell, is shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique in a rich, chocolate light that makes a primal jungle booby-trapped with savage natives and even a sterilized science lab look dreamy, as if life is lived in a perpetual nighttime. In one particularly sensual visual repetition, tiny, breathing hairs on the bark of the fabulous Tree of Life (Real? Symbolic? Let a hundred creation myths guide each viewer's answer) rise up erotically to the touch, just as Tommy is stirred by the hair at the back of his sleeping wife's neck.
The director stages a couple of scenes with obsessive opulence. A jungle skirmish approaches the grandeur of an Indiana Jones epic, while even Tommy and Izzi's home a way station in the story, hardly a destination is crammed with mood, detail, and a hint of Moulin Rouge decor to impress and distract the student who ventures to unsnarl the knotted strands of logic and faith that choke this Fountain. I'm not convinced Aronofsky makes a compelling, time-shifting explanation for the human hunger for eternal life when the present with a loved one is gift enough, but I'm perfectly content to float with him even if he doesn't solve the riddles of the universe.