Requiem for a Dream

Movie critics have little or no power, but they like to feel they do; one way they get their power fix is to anoint a director the Chosen One every couple of years. The last Chosen One was Paul Thomas Anderson, who made the gripping little debut Hard Eight and then followed it with the critics’ darling Boogie Nights. This year’s Chosen One is Darren Aronofsky, who made the gripping little debut π and has now followed it with the critics’ darling Requiem for a Dream. Both, I must report, are overrated cases of sophomore slump and been-there-rented-that.

Requiem for a Dream is based on a 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., whose work has been translated to the screen once before, in 1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Having seen both films, I suspect Selby has a thing for drab, dribbling narratives about grungy, desperate losers; he also has a thing for women being sexually humiliated before an appreciative audience of horndogs, since both films end with such a scene. It could be that Selby’s style, in print, has mitigating wit and flavor that keep the material from tottering into modish masochism. On film, what we see is human wreckage marching to the grim beat of their own predetermined ruin. Whether the director is Last Exit‘s gloomy, hyperserious Uli Edel or the gloomy, hyperactive Aronofsky, Selby’s material needs humor — something it lacks onscreen, as yet.

The script, credited to Selby and Aronofsky, focuses on four cases of despair and burnout: lonely widow Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), whose devotion to a garish TV infomercial seems her only connection to life; her son Harry (Jared Leto), a young heroin addict; Harry’s friend and drug partner Tyrone (Marlon Wayans); and Harry’s girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), whose parents, of course, gave her lots of money but no love. That’s more than enough misery for one movie, and Aronofsky, fracturing the narrative with clever tricks, does everything but run the film backwards and upside down to dislocate us, play with us, and keep our interest.

Unfortunately, he fails on the last count. Aronofsky strains to get an impressionistic drug experience — the highs, the lows, the anxiety over scoring the next fix — onto the screen. We may sit and think “That’s an innovative way to suggest inner chaos,” but we don’t feel it. And, frankly, a movie about a guy freaking out on a math equation (π) is more interesting than a movie about people freaking out on drugs, because we’ve seen Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to name just two recent drug films, and many others in the past. If anything, Aronofsky’s doomy, freaky, humorless style defeats his own purpose: It re-animates the dark romance of dissolution — it makes addiction look cool.

Ellen Burstyn almost rescues the movie. Sara, trying to lose weight in time to appear on her beloved TV show, gets hooked on uppers and downers prescribed by a rather inattentive doctor; she loses pounds, all right, and also her mind. Her story arc is tragic and moving, a sharply painful odyssey whose artistry and compassion mostly earn the pain it causes us (I could’ve done without her drug trip involving a killer fridge, though). Burstyn keeps us completely with her all the way through Sara’s bottoming-out; it’s a ferocious and courageous performance from an actress who’s never much cared about glamour (she doesn’t make addiction look cool).

By contrast, the other three actors are glamorous — and hollow. Marlon Wayans keeps his energy level up as Tyrone, but he’s bouncing off the blank wall known as Jared Leto, the most inexpressive pretty boy to slouch through movies since Christopher Lambert. Leto is pretty much a dud, and since the film centers on his character, it suffers badly as a result. And the male critics waiting for Jennifer Connelly to wake up and give the performance that will justify their laughable drooling over her (she is easy on the eyes, but so is a screensaver) will have to keep waiting, probably forever; Connelly is a dud, too. Requiem for a Dream is worth seeing for Ellen Burstyn and her unflinching descent into hell, but try not to think about how much better she is than the rest of the cast — or the movie she’s in.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, aronofsky, cult, drama, overrated, tspdt

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