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Bowing to Math

[whitespace] Pi
No Counting for Taste: The lure of number theory captivates Sean Gullette in director Darren Aronofsky's mathematical puzzler.

The numbers don't add up in 'Pi'

By Richard von Busack

IN THE NEW FILM Pi, Sean Gullette plays Maximillian Cohen, a great mathematician who is also a half-sane recluse locked up in his Manhattan apartment. He's tormented by migraines and nosebleeds as he works on his computer; his sole recreation is leaving to play the game of go with his ex-teacher, Sol (Mark Margolis). Sol helps viewers by providing some exposition: A Ph.D candidate at 20, Max is a genius who has let his studies rule him. "You're an Icarus," Sol exclaims. "You fly too high--life is not mathematics, Max!" Despite this venerable horror-movie advice, Max sinks deeper into numerical theory, believing that he can find "an ordered shape" behind the numbers he's compiling. Not even a cute, chipmunk-cheeked next-door neighbor can distract Max from his study of the transcendental number pi. His computer starts oozing a jellylike goo. Argentine ants--those tiny black pismires that have invaded California homes--also crawl out of the mainframe as a symbol of the "dark side."

Soon, Max begins to hear from other people who imagine that he truly is in touch with the infinite. He's pestered by stockbrokers, who believe Max can find the pattern that will predict the market's fluctuations. And he's approached by Meyer (Ben Shenkman), the head of a group of rabbis, who claims that Max can crunch the numbers in the Torah and bring about cosmic change (a motif borrowed from Arthur C. Clarke's short story The Nine Billion Names of God).

Director Darren Aronofsky is certainly at the right time and the right place for this underground movie. Ex-hipster fascination with the Kabala is peaking right now. (For some reason, the occult discipline has so far drawn Perry Farrell, Madonna and Sandra Bernhard. While it's always pleasing to see that old law of physics "The bigger they are, the harder they fall" applied, it's especially gratifying to see selfish celebrities succumb to crackpot spirituality.) The director/writer's grainy, black-and-white images of dingy New York locations are sometimes eerie. Subway stations are little Gardens of Gesthemane for the tortured Max. And a nightscape of Times Square suggests, through flashing neon and electronic ticker tapes, the wilderness of numbers Max inhabits. Shenkman's Meyer, a rabbi with the pleasant brashness of a three-card-monte hustler, livens up the movie whenever he appears.

At the Sundance Film Festival, screenwriter Paul Schrader praised Pi. Of course he did. It's his own script for Taxi Driver with Max as Travis Bickle with a pocket protector. When Max shaves his head--presumably to cool off his boiling brain--he looks very much like Robert De Niro's character after he wigs out. Unfortunately, Gullette is a noisy, overacting sufferer, and his agony becomes exhausting to watch. His raging (not to mention self-mutilation) is an actor's stunt that won't stop. Aronofsky's film is oppressive, but it's not oppressively paranoid; it becomes too clear, too soon that Pi doesn't quite add up. Give Pi 3.1416 on a scale of 10.

Pi (Unrated; 85 min.), directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Sean Gullette, Eric Watson and Aronofsky, photographed by Matthew Libatique and starring Gullette, Mark Margolis and Ben Shenkman.

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From the July 30-Aug. 5, 1998 issue of Metro.

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