Pain, paranoia perplex prime protagonist in 'Pi' Review: Math is an obsession in Darren Aronofsky's film.

August 14, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Maximillian Cohen is a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

A mathematician by trade, Max (Sean Gullette) is obsessed by numbers -- their beauty, their logic and their ineluctable hold over our lives and the natural world.

Max is also convinced that by using numbers theory -- specifically, by figuring out the mysteries of pi, a number with an infinite amount of integers -- he can crack the stock market. Max's days are spent seeing patterns in otherwise random events, whether he's reducing the leaves of a tree to a series of

elegant theorems or charting recurring symbols on the New York Times financial pages.

When Max makes the (random?) acquaintance of Lenny (Ben Shenkman), a Hasidic student of the Jewish mystical text known as Kabbalah, Max is introduced not only to numbers' logical and economic power but their spiritual power as well. If God can be found in a numerical interpretation of the Torah, couldn't the Tao be found in the Dow?

While Max works on his theory -- in a Lower East Side warren of jury-rigged computers and leftovers from a kind neighbor -- he tries to dodge Lenny's coffee-shop sermons as well as phone calls from a mysterious Wall Street executive (Pamela Hart) trying desperately to buy his services (and the secret to the market). As Max's psyche begins to disintegrate, the forces outside him coalesce into what seems a dark conspiracy: how fine the line between a pure logic that discerns patterns in the world and clinical paranoia.

"Pi" is an audacious, innovative, resourceful and utterly original debut for its writer-director Darren Aronofsky, who deservedly won the directing award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Shot in high-contrast black and white, on film stock that makes every iota of this very grainy film jump with nervous, edgy intensity, "Pi" gives the lie to the art film as un-commercial. As esoteric as its themes may be, Aronofsky's movie is the thriller that "Snake Eyes" isn't, a horror film far more troubling than "Halloween H20," and introduces a monster -- in the form of an increasingly agitated and dangerous-looking Max -- who puts "Godzilla" to shame.

Indeed, "Pi" resembles a slightly headier version of "Taxi Driver," with its dead-on evocation of urban paranoia and its fascination with a character who pushes himself further and further to the edges of life (Max even shaves his head in Travis Bickle-like extremis). But, thankfully, this gritty look at millennial angst doesn't end in redemptive violence but redemption itself.

As difficult as it is to consider some of the imagery and inner pain Aronofsky presents, he at least sees a possibility for grace in the postmodern capitalist landscape. And this promising filmmaker recognizes, just as his protagonist comes to realize, that the most important mysteries beg to be deepened rather than resolved.


Starring Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Released by Artisan Entertainment

Rated R (language, some disturbing images)

Running time 85 minutes

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 8/14/98

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