Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" spans more than 1,000 years and feels as though it takes about that long to unfold. A metaphysical melodrama about the quest for eternal life, it makes a pretty decent case for euthanasia; here is what it's like to long for a swift, merciful end. Bloated and logy, and art-directed within an inch of its life, the movie shovels heaps of phony portent and all-purpose mystical imagery onto a thin and maudlin plot (think "Love Story" across time and space) in the hope that we'll mistake it for something deep. As pretentious as it is silly, "The Fountain" is just the type of impenetrable indulgence that gives the concept of personal artistic visions a bad name.
The story begins in the 1500s, or seems to. Tomas (Hugh Jackman), a bellowing Spanish conquistador, is hacking his way through the Guatemalan jungle with his men when they are suddenly ambushed by Maya warriors. The fleeing soldiers are swiftly dispatched, but Tomas is taken to a temple, to be killed specially by the flaming sword of a warrior priest, just a few feet from the tree of life. The sword comes down, and Tomas, suddenly beardless and Gandhi-bald, floats up before the warrior in a bubble, calmly seated in the lotus position, and shoots off into space.
What is going on? You may as well ask. In as much as it's about anything, "The Fountain" is about the many myths cultures have around the idea of eternal life. For the Spaniards, it was a fountain. For the Mayas, it was a tree. For the supranational, non-denominational yet vaguely Tibetan Buddhist seeming New Age Future Man, it's a murmuring, sighing, hairy tree on a small planet in outer space. You say tomato, I say tom-ah-to.
Up in Xibalba, the Maya afterworld that was believed to be located in a dying nebula, Tom Creo, medicine man of the future, carefully chips bark off a hairy, sighing tree and tattoos himself with a fountain pen.
His labors are disturbed by the ghostly apparition of his wife (Rachel Weisz) in a fetching winter get-up. She wants him to "finish it." (By now, this sounds like a very good idea, whatever "it" is.) But Tom, clearly in torment, is too busy with the tree and the bark and the fountain pen to pay attention to his wife, even after her hospital bed makes an appearance. Whether this is the underworld, the afterlife, the future, the unconscious or a modern primitive version of "A Little Prince" is not entirely clear. But you get the sense that all bases are being covered, and that you'd do well to take notes.
Which brings us to the main story. Tommy Creo (Jackman in floppy hair, no beard) is a brain surgeon/cancer researcher whose wife, Izzi (Weisz), is dying of a brain tumor. Despite his wife's best efforts, and the exhortations of his motherly boss, Dr. Lillian Guzzetti (Ellen Burstyn), Tom can't tear himself away from the lab even to take moonlight walks with his doomed beloved. He is working, we're meant to understand, on the cure that will save her -- which accounts for his pissy behavior around the lab and his mopey demeanor at home. But the unintentional message is that while Izzi may be a perfect thing to idolize, she's kind of a pill to be around.
Weisz is a wonderfully earthy actress, surprising, usually, for her blunt force and directness. But here she plays the vaguest of flaky feminine ideals. Izzi is one of those diaphanous martyrs, a beatific star-gazer with artistic inclinations, who is on the verge of completing (in longhand, mind you, with a fountain pen) her phantasy opus, called "The Fountain."
The book is a mystical tale about a Queen Isabel of Spain (also Weisz), who, threatened by a crazed inquisitor, sends one of her conquistadors (Jackman, in full facial sprout) to the American jungles to discover the fountain of youth. Cue Jackman's beard, and some candlelit scenes in a Moorish castle where the queen is glimpsed through arabesque screens. Where's Ferdinand in all this? Who knows? Whatever history is alluded to in "The Fountain" is about as sound and grounded as its science. It has one interesting point to make -- something about the connection between myths about eternal life and the agricultural cycles of death, decay and rebirth -- but it takes altogether too long and expends far too many average art department budgets to make them.
Things get especially weird when Tom Creo (time-traveler? space man? soul liberated from its body?) shoots through wormholes and gets bent out of shape at the edge of the space-time continuum. It looks like the trippiest yoga video you ever saw, or something out of "What the Bleep Do We Know?" But for all the fancy effects and the elaborate costuming, all I was left with -- what with the tree, the sap, the soil and the regenerative powers of death and decay ("What if death were an act of creation?" flaky Izzi asks her brain surgeon husband) -- is that it all comes down to fertilizer.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of violent action, some sexuality and language. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. In general release.