blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Pi (1998, Darren Aronofsky)

The incredible thing about Pi is how well director Aronofsky is able to compensate for his lead. Pi is about mathematician Sean Gullette discovering a pattern hidden in the stock market—or so he thinks—and trying to navigate the repercussions of his discovery. Wall Street firm lady Pamela Hart is after him for the equation, so’s Hasidic Messianic Jewish guy Ben Shenkman; Shenkman wants the code to bring about the coming of the real Messiah, Hart wants it to control the world economy. Basically Pi might be a prequel to Sneakers or it might be a prequel to Prince of Darkness or it might just all be in Gullette’s imagination because Pi is about him suffering a tragically debilitating psychotic break. Besides showcasing Aronofsky’s direction, Matthew Libatique’s wonderful high contrast photography (hiding some of the low budget aspects and instead making them appear to be personality), and Clint Mansell’s sometimes great, sometimes annoying music, Pi is mostly just a great look at how people sometimes really need mental health care and the results of them not getting it is very bad.

There are touchstones to Gullette’s experience of the film—fetching, caring neighbor Samia Shoaib is pretty for sure real, ditto nice little neighbor kid Kristyn Mae-Anne Lao, who does math problems with Gullette. And Mark Margolis, as Gullette’s former professor, current Go opponent (Aronofsky and Libatique lean in on Go being monochrome) and life mentor; Margolis is pretty real.

Margolis is trying to convince Gullette he’s on a fools errand trying to discover the mathematic equation pi in the world around them, which would either let Gullette get rich off the stock market (or not) or just help him understand how the confusing world functions. The film leaves a lot open in the end, with very little revealed about protagonist Gullette despite him narrating and Pi being a character study; Gullette wouldn’t be able to handle it, acting-wise. Aronofsky has to figure out how to do a character study where it doesn’t matter the lead actor, who’s in every scene of the movie (albeit only an eighty-four minute one), is at his very best doing a combination Johns Turturro and Cusack impression. At his very best, which is rare and always requires someone else to hold up the scene, like Lao or Shoaib; Margolis and Gullette rarely share shots in their talking heads scenes so who knows what Margolis was acting off. Who knows how good Pi might be with a compelling lead performance.

Aronofsky and his crew try to compensate, doing a rapid, handheld urban nightmare. Libatique’s photography is striking enough you wish they’d slow it down so the scenery would make an impression instead of being flashes of light. It’s technically superlative photography. Just gorgeous. The movie’s just too fast for it to really resonate past how Aronofsky needs it to work, what he needs it to convey, because he can’t rely on Gullette to do the work.

Gullette’s the only bad performance. Besides his lead, Aronofsky seems to care about acting. Margolis almost has a great part; he’s excellent and the part goes to pot along with the movie in the third act so it doesn’t matter much. Shenkman’s really good. Hart’s fine. Stephen Pearlman’s good in a cameo. Lao’s cute. Shoaib’s good. It’s just Gullette. His performance appears to be thoughtless. If it’s not thoughtless, there’s a real problem with how Aronofsky directed him then.

I mean, Pi’s a lot better than I remember. Though everything wrong with it I remember is still wrong with it this time.

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