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Review: Bring a cheat sheet for 'Pi'

Web posted on: Tuesday, July 28, 1998 3:52:10 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Attention! New cinematic ground has been broken! Writer/director Darren Darren Aronofsky's "Pi" is the first movie I've ever disliked because (among other too-much-ness) it contains too much math.

This isn't just because I'm lousy with numbers, either. I long ago came to terms with the fact that my computation skills collapse in a sweaty heap when faced with such Einstein-like feats as calculating a 15 percent tip or counting backwards from 100, with or without anesthesia.

No, the reason the math in "Pi" bugs me so much is because Aronofsky knows damn well that most of the people in the audience don't have a clue what his main character (Max Cohen, a "mad genius" played by Sean Gullette) is talking about, so he can spout off numbers-based philosophies of existence all day long without fear of looking like he's making it all up. Which, for the most part, I suspect he is.

Budget no shortcoming

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Clip: Max gets chased
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Theatrical trailer
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Give us your take on "Pi"

Aronofsky's script is certainly something different, and, even with an ultra-low budget, he pours on lots of visual tricks. This only makes sense; since most of the movie consists of an unlikable guy shouting numbers at people, that camera had better start jumping and spinning in circles as often as possible.

It's just that I can't get very jazzed by a main character who won't sleep with the sexy, willing girl across the hall because he's too caught up in trying to calculate a 216-digit number that, when interpreted by the proper Hassidic Jews, will give him the name of God. I would just call God "God," toss the calculator, and try to put the moves on the chick in 6D.

There's an eager-to-dazzle film-school intensity to the proceedings that I found wholly distracting, but that dazzle has landed Aronofsky a studio production deal, so I guess it worked. The high contrast black-and-white photography, for instance, is black-and-white photography. The visuals contain so much artsy-fartsy glare and grain you'd have to yank your eyes out not to notice it.

All of this hoopla is supposed to draw us into Max's obsessions, full of grinding sound effects and deeply focused number pondering, but I was nowhere near as fascinated as Max seemed to be. He's so obsessed, as a matter of fact, he eventually breaks his bathroom mirror and starts pounding his head on the wall. Heck, I took that trip courtesy of 9th grade algebra.

The central theory:

Max is having a koo-koo fit over the following theory (be warned. You may wind up with a broken mirror and stitches in your head if this kind of thing appeals to you):

  1. Mathematics is the language of nature
  2. Everything in the world can be represented and understood with numbers.
  3. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge.

Read that sequence of facts aloud, over and over again, while flinging a camera all over the room. There -- you've got yourself a movie. Admittedly, Aronofsky tries to make it seem like there's more going on than that. At first, Max is trying to find a predictable pattern to the stock market, but pretty soon all kinds of people start ominously pursuing him because they think he knows something.

When you get right down to it, that's what 80 percent of Alfred Hitchcock's movies were about, and you didn't have to sit through umpteen arguments about the meaning of pi, or whether or not you can calculate the flow of nature with a homemade computer that has lots of tangled wires hanging off of it.

What really got me, though, was Max's sudden immersion in urban paranoia. He doesn't seem very concerned with anybody else in his world for two-thirds of the movie. Then, out of nowhere, he heads into panic overdrive. It seems to me that Aronofsky gets so caught up in the calculating, he forgets to slowly build any narrative steam. Instead, he just adds it on, as if movies are homework assignments -- if you have the right answer at the end, who cares how you got there.

Well, I do, for one, and (as much as I would've liked to) I wasn't buying. Aronofsky has been talking about making a truly frightening horror movie his next time out, and, visually, I think he's fully capable of that. He just needs to develop as much interest in human beings as he does in numbers. Maybe he could turn down that f-stop a little bit, too.

If you're the kind of person who recites Monty Python routines out-loud, refuses to recognize how simplistic "Star Trek" is, and never scored less than 97 on a calculus exam, "Pi" is for you. It's supposed to be scary, but really isn't. There are hints of possible violence, although the nastiest part is when Max gets rattled and shaves his own head. It's all pretty McKafka if you ask me. Not rated. 85 minutes.

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