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Everyone Wants a Piece of 'Pi'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 1998

  Movie Critic

Sean Gullette stars in "Pi."
(Artisan Entertainment)

Darren Aronofsky
Sean Gullette;
Mark Margolis;
Ben Shenkman;
Pamela Hart;
Stephen Pearlman
Running Time:
1 hour, 25 minutes
For language and some disturbing images
"Pi" is a frantically stylish, often fascinating fable of a scrambled egghead on the verge of a major mathematical breakthrough or a trip to the madhouse. It's also a cautionary thriller, however far-fetched, about pushing too hard and reaching too far or like Icarus (one of many ancient Greeks cited in the movie), flying too high. Think of it as metaphysics for the cyber set.

Maximillian "Max" Cohen (Sean Gullette) has tested all the limits and is paying the price in paranoia and pain. An agoraphobic genius prone to splitting headaches, terrifying hallucinations and blinding insights, Max is obsessed with decoding the numerical patterns within the ultimate system of ordered chaos: the stock market.

Max spends his time cloistered in a cramped apartment, its only furnishing a two-bedroom, homemade supercomputer. With few exceptions, his only companions are the ants that share his rundown flat in New York's Chinatown. The door has many locks and knocks most often go unheeded while Max cowers in the corner.

Sustained only by the occasional coffee and his psychotropic meds, Max's recreation is a game of go with a former professor, Sol (Mark Margolis). Sol urges his former pupil to follow Archimedes' example and give his research a rest. "Take a bath," he orders. But Max refuses. "I'm on the edge, and that's where it happens," he says.

Subsequently, a sect of Hasidic Jews learns of his experiments and attempts to enlist his aid in deciphering the secrets of the cabala, including the coming of the true Messiah. About the same time, representatives of a high-powered Wall Street firm try to enlist Max in helping them get the jump on the stock market.

All this came to pass, as Max notes in his journal, because he stared into the sun and was blinded by the light. When his sight returned, he was no longer an ordinary boy capable of such ordinary functions as distinguishing the forest from the trees. Now he could no longer see the trees for the leaves or the leaves themselves. Only patterns.

The lesson: A lot of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Gullette brings all manner of tics and twitches to the role, but the tumult of flashing lights, icky imagery and pulsing beat amplifies the anguish inside Max's aching skull. Shot in suitably grainy black-and-white, the movie all but captures the synaptic crackle and pop of his overburdened brain.

A promising first feature from Sundance Festival darling Darren Aronofsky, "Pi" proves surprisingly cinematic for a $60,000 art film about abstract mathematics and the discovery process. But in the end, it's primarily a brain teaser, obtuse and ultimately limited in its emotional impact.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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