Pi (review)

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Pi straddles the line between brilliance and pretension to the point that it’s hard to know on which side of that line it eventually rests. Though it ventures into challenging, intelligent subject matter that few other films dare to, its pacing and visual styling is often jarring and inappropriate.

Max Cohen (Sean Gullette, who looks like a young Ben Kingsley) is a reclusive genius obsessed with mathematics, “the language of nature.” His all-consuming project is to find the patterns in the “universe of numbers” that is the stock market — he’s trying to write a computer program for predicting market fluctuations. This universe of numbers is his escape from his real world: When he isn’t popping pills and injecting himself with unspecified drugs to counter his massive migraines, he’s peering out the peephole of his claustrophobic apartment in New York’s Chinatown in an effort to avoid his neighbors on the rare occasions when he goes out.
On one trip into the real world, Max meets Lenny (Ben Shenkman: The Siege), a Hasidic Jew and Torah scholar who shares Max’s fixation on numbers: “Hebrew is all numbers,” he tells Max, “a code sent to us from God.” Lenny mentions a 216-digit number — the secret name of God — for which he’s scouring the Torah. Then Max’s mentor Sol (Mark Margolis: Absolute Power) tells of a 216-digit computer bug he came across once. And then Max’s stock-market program spits out a mysterious 216-digit number. Max’s obsession deepens, plunging him, perhaps, into insanity.

Shot in high-contrast black-and-white — director Darren Aronofsky made the film for less than many people pay for an automobile — Pi is like a fever dream, its frenzied, discordant images reflecting what is going on inside Max’s head: the literal pain of his headaches and the figurative compulsion of his mathmania. Highly stylized, the film sometimes seems at odds with itself, its disjointed, nightmarish quality trying too hard to be a manic foil for the cool logic of mathematics. (Similarly, I loved the electronica soundtrack — it just didn’t belong in this movie.) In some ways, Pi reminded me of a very different film: 1987’s Three O’Clock High, a beautifully shot movie that was just too cleverly stylish for its teen-farce subject matter.

Pi‘s script — cowritten by Aronofsky and Gullette — likewise leaves me with mixed feelings. I liked their smart conjunction of religion, Wall Street, math, and the Japanese game of go as metaphors for the universe as a whole — Pi is startlingly more intellectually ambitious than most movies in recent memory — but at times I felt as if I were watching an episode of The Twilight Zone that I half remembered from a late-night rerun. Confusingly unexplored is Max’s continual invocation of his mother’s warning, when he was a child, not to look at the sun — “So once when I was 6, I did,” he says, with the suggestion that this is the cause of his migraines. Is this an Icarus-like warning against daring too much? This — and the film’s ending, which suggests that genius is a burden better lived without — does not seem supported by what has come before.

This is perhaps the only film ever to thank Leonardo da Vinci in its credits. Like some of Leonardo’s efforts in the realm of science and art, Pi is fanciful and intriguing without being entirely successful. But Darren Aronofsky’s film is a much more interesting failure than those of a dozen lesser artists combined.

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