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Requiem for a Dream

Softened Focus

By Jed Horne

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Written by Hubert Selby Jr. and Darren Aronofsky

Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans and Jennifer Connelly

Rated NC-17

The success of Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film Pi was in its pinpoint focus: a visually stylized look at one obsessed character’s spiral into madness. The biggest mistake of Aronofsky’s sophomore effort, Requiem for a Dream, was to broaden the aperture and try to track four characters, each of whom alone could have been substitutes for Pi’s agoraphobic anti-hero, through predictable patterns of drug-related hell, sexual dysfunction, and dementia.

Academy Award-winning actress Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist) plays Sara Goldfarb, a self-delusional widow, obsessed with weight loss and a deceitful promise to appear on her favorite game show. Her son Harry, played by Jared Leto, is a junkie and aspiring dealer. His relationships with girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and fellow deadbeat Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) mirror his mother’s amphetamine-induced hallucinations in their increasing desperation and depravity.

The problem is the screenplay, which Aronofsky co-scripted with the help of author Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn). Selby is a latter-day Chaucer when it comes to intertwining loosely connected plot lines. Aronofsky isn’t. Without Pi’s blessedly bare script, the film quickly drowns in a four-character wallow. Cuts between plot lines are confusing and often meaningless. The only effective parallel between the different characters occurs during the eye-popping climax that earns the film its NC-17 rating.

There is something to be said for Aronofsky’s insinuation that heroin addicts and mathematicians have something in common. Jared Leto’s Harry may be an accurate depiction of a real bad heroin addict, but most of the other aspects of his presence in the film is a non sequitur. The only actor that comes close to Max Cohen’s obsessive self-involvement in Pi is Ellen Burstyn, who delivers a convincing portrayal of madness, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the forty-pound body suit she had to fit into during the filming.

Requiem for a Dream is not without merit. Pi was a masterful fugue in black and white. This time Aronofsky shows a keen eye for color. The backdrop of almost the entire film is a muted green, punctuated by brightly tinted flashes. Along with an ambitious musical score, it gives the entire film a creepy, surreal aspect that rivals and even improves on the groundbreaking cinematography and post-MTV style employed so effectively in Pi.

Two other effects new to Aronofsky’s repertoire are the use of different projection speeds and a split screen to show multiple camera angles of the same scene. The techniques combine to produce a visual environment unrivaled in independent cinema.

However, it is the mish-mash of characters that is Aronofsky’s undoing, and from the ways in which the new movie harks back to Pi, you begin to sense that maybe the director realizes his second at-bat is a bunt. Among some self-conscious tributes to the earlier film, watch for Mark Margolis’s cameo, the pill-popping sequence, and shots of Coney Island.

All that said, Aronofsky can hardly be blamed for trying a more ambitious project. He can only be accused of overstepping his considerable ability as a filmmaker. If you liked Pi, Requiem is a must see. If you didn’t, don’t bother.

Requiem for a Dream, a selection showcased in the Boston Film Festival, is scheduled for release in Boston theatres on November 3rd.