Movie review: 'The Fountain'

2½ stars (out of four)

It's possible to admire or respect a movie without enjoying it too much, and that's partly the reaction I had to Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain." It's an incredibly ambitious film of sometimes thrilling visual achievement, but it didn't connect fully to my mind and nerves.

"The Fountain" is Aronofsky's three-part tale of the search for the Tree of Life -- for victory over death, especially the death of those we love. At the center, present in body or memory in all three tales, are Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as a pair of lovers -- variously named Tomas, Tom, Isabel or Izzi -- caught up in the quest.

The three episodes, woven together throughout, take place at 500-year intervals: in the 16th Century, in the present day and in the 26th Century. The focus switches rapidly from era to era and from movie genre to movie genre (from period history adventure to contemporary romantic drama to visionary science fiction), with a hallucinatory flow reminiscent of Aronofsky's drug movie "Requiem for a Dream." Depending on your receptivity, it will keep you enthralled or uneasy throughout.

In the 16th Century section, a bearded Jackman is dashing conquistador Tomas. The lovely Queen Isabel has sent him to the New World to find the Tree of Life, an adventure that leads Tomas to clashes with Mayan tribes and sword-fights -- and a final date with the Tree itself.

In the 21st Century, Jackman is a scientist named Tommy Creo and Weisz his wife, Izzi, a novelist dying of a brain tumor. Her illness inspires Tommy, whose mentor is the motherly Dr. Guzetti (Ellen Burstyn of Aronofsky's "Requiem"), to experiments with monkeys and a desperate search for a cure. And, in the 26th Century, a now-ancient astronaut named Tom Creo, who is either the same man or another version of the recurring figure, embraces a great celestial tree that he is transporting to the far nebula Xibalba, while reflecting on his lost love Izzi and on his date with the unknown.

"The Fountain" is a visual knockout, drenched in fantastic imagery that inevitably recalls an Aronofsky idol, Stanley Kubrick. We get whiffs of both the antiseptic poetry of "2001" and the gorgeous period tableaux of "Barry Lyndon." But there's a coldness to Aronofsky's vision here that works against the emotion he wants. Even the rapturous shots of Weisz -- in which we can sense some real-life passion between director and the actress to which he's engaged and with whom he has a child -- lack some of the charge they should have.

Jackman, though, has a field day with his triple role, moving from the romantic but brutal and single-minded Tomas to the grandly obsessed Tommy to the spent, worshipful Tom. Mythic figures often only work in genre movies such as westerns or science fiction, but Jackman, a veteran of the pop-mythic "X-Men" movies, pulls it off.

Meanwhile, "The Fountain" tries to invent its own genre. It's ultimately about not a search for youth but about how to face death, particularly the death of the person whom you love most. That's a potentially shattering subject, but the film, for all its mystic beauty, doesn't shatter us. It's a pity because there's a great theme here -- and all art itself is often an attempt to cheat death, outlast mortal flesh and decay. On reflection, "The Fountain" probably couldn't fulfill its grand quest anymore than any of the Toms can. But you have to admire the effort.

mwilmington@tribune.com

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'The Fountain'

Directed and written by Darren Aronofsky; photographed by Matthew Libatique; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; production designed by James Chinlund; music by Clint Mansell; produced by Eric Watson, Arnon Milchan, Iain Smith. A Warner Bros. Pictures & Regency Enterprises release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some intense sequences of violent action, come sensuality and language).

Tomas/Tommy/Tom Creo - Hugh Jackman

Isabel/Izzi Creo - Rachel Weisz

Dr. Lillian Guzetti - Ellen Burstyn

Father Avila - Mark Margolis

Grand Inquisitor Silecio - Stephen McHattie

Captain Ariel - Cliff Curtis

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