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'Requiem': An Overdose of Tricks

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2000


    'Requiem for a Dream' Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly are drowning in drugs and depression in "Requiem for a Dream." (Artisan Entertainment)
"Requiem for a Dream" is an account of the tribulations of drug addiction by a director so over-caffeinated he could run a Starbucks franchise on the fumes alone.

Darren Aronofsky's movie has the jitters, the heebie-jeebies, the shakes, the DTs and a bad hangover all at once. Is there a trick that isn't tried, from close-ups of a pupil dilating like a star system exploding in a far reach of the universe to a sound that conveys the "rush" of the drug hit like the wind coming in from China across the bay? Not to mention super-fast clouds, portentous posings against the Coney Island beachfront – every imaginable gizmo from the director's tool kit.

Darren, why am I saying these horrible things about you? You are so talented. Can't you just, you know, stop carrying the torch of your genius as if it's the light that will deliver us all from the evil of mediocrity? Can't you just make the movie and forget about the style? Well, perhaps he can't. He's already been spoiled by too much praise.

Aronofsky made a name for himself on his first feature, a brilliant foray into higher mathematics (hardly promising feature material) called "Pi." In its way, his new film is also about pi, only it's spelled pie. "Requiem for a Dream," directed from a no-doubt unpleasant novel by Hubert Selby Jr., is about Americans who want to have their pie and eat it, too. They want too much too fast; they get a road trip to Hell with no return ticket.

I suppose the new wrinkle, as far as dope-Hell movies go, is that "Requiem for a Dream" tracks the downward spiral in triplicate. That is, three handsome people crash and burn, and we're with them every step of the way.

Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly (once a starlet, now an actress) play an unlikely couple who have moved from Coney Island to more fashionable precincts. He's a minor-league dope pusher named Harry Goldfarb, she's a fashion designer wannabe named Marion Silver. The romance never makes much sense because she's nearly 30 and he looks about 14. She's also upscale and knows what wine goes with fish. He's barely socialized. Possibly they love each other because they look so much alike: They have perfect upturned noses and concave cheeks; hanks of dark, thick, lustrous hair; deep-burning, haunted eyes; skin pale as death itself. So in a sense their relationship is narcissistic to begin with. Frankly, they're so beautiful together, they seem fated to blaze brightly and burn out too early.

But the third figure is a surprise. It's Harry's mother (Ellen Burstyn), who lives alone in Coney Island on a small pension. Sara Goldfarb's drug is . . . well, I suppose it's identity – the identity she craves so desperately, but lacks so completely. She's an old lady in a building of old ladies, whose men and children are gone and who sun themselves on sidewalk lawn chairs after arranging themselves in a very certain pecking order, at the bottom of which is Mrs. Goldfarb. Her private vice is television; she watches an absurd show (parody is not Aronofsky's forte) that seems to consist entirely of picking winners. (Winners of what? I don't know. The movie doesn't show us.) She wants to get on the show. She wants to be a winner.

One day, an application to be on the show arrives, and that gives Mrs. Goldfarb's life meaning. It also sends her to Hell. Determined to get into her red dress, she fails at dieting and turns to a doctor who prescribes amphetamines for appetite suppression. Within a few weeks she has tumbled into a valley of the dolls all her own, where (in a ridiculous touch) she's assailed by a haunted refrigerator. There's much talk about an Oscar nomination for the 67-year-old Burstyn, talk that in my judgment is overstated. How much harder it would be to play, say, something subtle like a good high school teacher or a small-company CEO than a screaming-meemie nutbird who thinks her refrigerator is going to eat her.

Meanwhile Harry and Marion, riding the dope economy, become victims of its vicissitudes. For a while things are good; they buy low and sell high, stopping off for an occasional recreational blast. But when the Mafia and the black street gangs declare war on each other, the cottage industry dealers like Harry feel it worst of all.

The supply evaporates. What remains is too high-priced, and in months (it feels like years in the film) they've blown their stash. They're reduced to the lowest levels of scuffling for existence on the streets. Harry's arm gets infected and blossoms with pus and bruises, and turns into something that resembles a monster from outer space. Marion begins turning tricks for drugs, then performing at sex shows for stockbrokers.

At the same time, Mama's freaking big time, as her pill-craziness has her so inflamed she's banging her head on the ceiling. She finally goes down to the television studio in her red dress to demand to be picked as a winner. Mrs. Goldfarb, can you say "Bellevue"? What about "electroshock therapy"? That hiss you hear, Mrs. Goldfarb, that's your brain frying.

You get the picture, and a pretty one it's not. In the end the movie goes nowhere a hundred movies haven't already been and tells us nothing we don't already know. It does so with so much violent energy, however, it's like four brutal years at film school crammed into an hour and a half.

"Requiem for a Dream" (102 minutes at the Outer Circle) is not rated, to avoid an NC-17 for perverse sexual implication (you don't want to know).


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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