May 24, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: Requiem for a Dream

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Written by Hubert Selby Jr., from his original novel
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

I'll admit it -- for a long time I avoided seeing Darren Aronofsky's second full-length feature, Requiem for a Dream, because of it starring Marlon Wayans, pretty much the poster-child for the "Uh-oh, I poopied my pants!" style of modern film for which this series of reviews was created to specifically combat. Not to mention that the other main male star is Jared Leto, who I've now seen in four movies and have hated each and every time. But on the other hand, it's Darren Aronofsky, whose first movie Pi still remains one of my all-time favorite films, and whose latest movie The Fountain is yet one more film on my unending Netflix queue list. Plus one of the other stars is Jennifer Connelly, an actress who makes such interesting and smart choices in her career that you can't help but to be curious about anything she's in.

Requiem for a Dream

So I put it in my queue list, and I just got done watching it, and to tell you the truth I'm still not sure what to think of it. Because on the one hand, it's an awfully creepy and dark film-based nightmare, something that takes all the weirdness of Pi and ratchets it up a notch. But unfortunately, that's not the movie Aronofsky was trying to make; he was trying to make a human-interest drama about the horrors of drug abuse, but in this respect the film is mostly a failure, a ham-fisted afterschool special that relies on giant leaps in logic to get its point across. So what do you do with a film that you ultimately kind of like, but for the opposite reasons than what the filmmaker was going for in the first place? Do you ultimately give it a thumbs-up? Do you admire the filmmaker for his ambition but not specifically recommend the movie itself? Or do you just chalk the entire thing up to a messy, expensive failure, an example of what happens when a trippy sci-fi director tries to go for Oscar bait?

Requiem for a Dream

For those who don't know, the movie is the tale of four addicts, each of them addicted to different things: there are Harry and Tyrone, for example (Leto and Wayans), scummy small-time heroin users and dealers in Brooklyn, who dream of one day scoring big and never having to hustle again; Harry's mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn), a sad-sack caricature of The Whiny Old-Age New York Jewish Female, who ends up hooked to a series of amphetamines and barbiturates (or as she knows them, "diet pills"), because of mistakenly believing that she is about to appear on a popular series of self-help television infomercials; and Marion (Connelly), a spoiled rich girl whose parents pay for her trendy Brooklyn loft on the condition that she attend therapy, and who dates Harry mostly to piss off her father.

Requiem for a Dream

Now, let's be truthful; all four of these characters are despicable, a series of weak-willed morons who represent the absolute worst qualities of humanity (self-delusion, arrogance, lack of courage, lack of willpower, egotism and more). And this makes the film troublesome from the start, at least as far as Aronofsky's goal of telling a cautionary tale about drugs, because it's almost impossible to root for such delusional losers; the longer the movie progressed, in fact, the more I began to actually hope that terrible things would happen to these people, as maybe a wake-up call or divine revenge to counter the extreme amount of myopia on display. As the four gradually descend into their nightmares of addiction and denial, I found myself saying things like, "These idiots are getting everything they deserve," not an especially good attitude for the audience to have if one is trying to make the characters sympathetic.

Requiem for a Dream

And speaking of that nightmarish descent, this is where the problems with the movie get much worse; because even though the storyline is serviceable in a not-particularly-original kind of way (partly because of it being based on a novel from 1978, when such a story was fresh and original), the entire second half is predicated on a situation that in a million years would never happen -- of all five boroughs in New York running out of heroin at the same exact moment, and of 12 million people not being able to do anything about it. And this is such a ridiculous notion that it simply shuts down the entire second half of the movie's plot, as far as any attempts to inject reality into the situation; by the time Harry and Tyrone decide that they need to drive all the way to Florida just to score, I found myself just silently rolling my eyes and shaking my head, because what other reaction can an intelligent person have?

Requiem for a Dream

Fortunately, once you give up on the idea that this is an actual realistic story and should be treated as such, you then discover the film's true greatest strength; that much like Pi before it and The Fountain after, Requiem for a Dream is visually sumptuous, a treat for the eyes and the kind of cinematographic tour-de-force that Hollywood rarely sees. It's undeniable that Aronofsky is the most visually stunning director of his generation (i.e. my generation -- Aronofsky and I were in fact born two weeks apart), and it is entirely possible to be marveled by this film for that alone, despite all the weaknesses in the plot, despite the horrific acting, despite the moralizing that is wielded with all the grace of a two-by-four to the back of the head. ("Drugs bad! You lose arm! Creepy black guy turn you into prostitute! Electroshock! DRUGS BAD! DRUGS BAD! DRUGS BAD!!!!!!")

Requiem for a Dream

So in a way, when all is said and done, maybe it was actually brilliant of Aronofsky to hire the extremely annoying Leto and Wayans for his two male leads; these are annoying characters, after all, glorified meatsacks who have the solution to their personal hells staring them in the face the whole time (hint: it involves methadone and getting over your mommies), and who choose to ignore it in order to score another fix. That still doesn't necessarily make it a good film, though, and it certainly doesn't mean that Aronofsky is at a point of maturity yet as a filmmaker to take on a story like this. For now I will stick with his more fantastical projects, where he really shines; and if you want to see a movie about what drug addiction is really like*, go rent Trainspotting.

Out of 10:
Writing: 3.5
Acting: 5.2
Directing: 7.8
Cinematography: 9.6
Overall: 6.4

Random notes:

Requiem for a Dream

--It's hard to believe that Ellen Burstyn actually got nominated for a Best Actress Oscar because of this role; she basically spends two hours screaming in a bad Brooklyn accent and denying the reality of the world around her. Then again, the makeup job done on her in this film is spectacular -- and isn't that all an actress needs anymore to get an Oscar nomination?

--Special mention should be made, by the way, of the terrific way the DVD was handled; both the introduction and all the menus, in fact, are based off the informercial that Sara gets so addicted to over the course of the film, and are done so realistically that at first I thought that Netflix had accidentally shipped me the wrong movie.

--For those who don't know, Hubert Selby Jr. (writer of both the screenplay and the novel it's based on) has a cameo in the film; he plays the racist Southern jail guard with the horrific teeth. And Aronofsky has a cameo as well -- he's one of the many anonymous males seen in the shot from the private sex club.

Requiem for a Dream

--Oh yeah, and you know that episode of The Simpsons with the Ribwich? And all those funny close-up shots of Homer when he first tries one? Yeah, this is the movie that episode was parodying.

Best viewed: with all your pot-smoking buddies, while laughing and screaming at Jared Leto's character, "You have more than one vein in your body, you f---ing moron!"

Next on my queue list: Metropolis, the 1927 Fritz Lang science-fiction classic, restored in 2002 in a way that's apparently amazing. I'm excited!

*And on a personal note, I feel compelled to mention that I have a drug addiction in my own past from which I'm now recovered, and that this undoubtedly flavors my take on the movie; as anyone who's actually had a drug addiction in their past will quickly realize themselves, there are lots of details in this film about the subject that will make you laugh out loud in their naivete.

Read even more about Requiem for a Dream: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:29 PM, May 24, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |