The title of this grandiose, gazillion-years-in-the-making opus refers to nothing less than the fabled Fountain of Youth — which also, in fact, turns out to be the biblical Tree of Life (aka Tree of Knowledge) from the Garden of Eden, and probably a couple of other mind-blowing, earth-shattering items too. If you figure it all out, let me know, because by the time the closing credits for The Fountain showed up, I'd pretty much given up.
Blending Judeo-Christian symbols with Mayan, Buddhist and pagan notions of time, space and karmic rebirth, The Fountain is one of the most ambitious, idea-oriented and visually gorgeous American movies in many years. It is also unintentionally silly, self-important, barely coherent and frequently tedious, like the grand finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey tricked out with flashier bells and whistles and blown up to feature-length. (That may sound like a high recommendation to some, but the effect is actually closer to New Age-y gobbledy-gook, and roughly the cinematic equivalent of a really bad prog-rock album from the mid-'70s.)
The Fountain is unquestionably a magical mystery tour opening up numerous cans of potentially interesting worms, but the trick is staying awake long enough to suss them out. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz play star-crossed lovers who appear in three different manifestations and in three different time periods — 16th-century Spain, contemporary America and the far future — as Jackman's character attempts to discover the secret of immortality and save his terminally ill lover. Or something like that.
The film is intricately layered and beautiful to look at, with production design somewhere between a medieval icon and Matthew Barney (the centerpiece being a giant spaceship-cum-snow-globe floating through a sea of stars), but moves at the proverbial snail's pace, and it's all ultimately a bit of a drag. Director Darren Aronofsky piles on the arcane head games of his debut, Pi, as well as variations on the hyper-stylized razzle dazzle of his subsequent Requiem for a Dream, but all seems rather forced and oppressive, not to mention gratuitous — a densely layered puzzle constructed more to be admired than solved.
The Fountain (PG-13) Stars Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Mark Margolis and Stephen McHattie. Opens Nov. 22 at local theaters. 3 stars