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Darren Aronofsky's Pi uncovers the numeric patterns behind good filmmaking.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  Pi is nothing like Good Will Hunting. But then again, it is.

On the surface, the only thing shared by Darren Aronofsky's devilish, frenetic thriller and Gus van Sant/Matt Damon's feel-good savant story is that they're both about math geniuses. But, for all of their other differences, they also have a fundamentally similar bottom line—they are movies about math that aren't really about math at all.

Max Cohen (played by Sean Gullette), the protagonist of Pi, seems a lot more like a genius than Will Hunting ever did. While van Sant and Damon thought it was enough to have their broad-shouldered hero scribble randomly on blackboards, Aronofsky takes us inside Max's hard-wired head—literally, at one point. A nervous man who doesn't like to be touched (Gullette comes off as John Turturro playing Travis Bickle), Max hides himself in an apartment cluttered with jerry-rigged technology. His mainframe computer—named "Euclid" (see, he's a real mathematician)—is churning through numbers, looking for patterns.

Max believes, as he repeats in clipped, insistent voice-overs, that everything in nature has a pattern, and that those patterns can be reduced to numbers that can be predicted. His working model is the stock market—not, he insists, because he wants to make money, but just because it's there. If he can find the patterns that govern such a complicated human system, he might be able to find how everything works.

Meanwhile, some dark-suited people from a powerful financial firm are very interested in his work, and a group of Hasidic Jews keeps trying to tell him about the cabala. It seems Max's quest might tie into a mystical Judaic belief in a long-lost sacred number.

The movie is a lot of fun, not least because it takes Max seriously. Aronofsky knows enough about math to dazzle us with some number games, and the notion of mathematical patterns undergirding seemingly random events starts to seem tantalizingly believable. If high school teachers knew how to make calculus this mysterious and seductive, they'd have a lot fewer math burn-outs.

Aronofsky also gives Max's math abilities (demonstrated in scenes where a neighbor girl asks him to do complex equations in his head) a supernatural patina. Max keeps talking about something that happened when he was six—he stared straight at the sun too long, because his mother told him not to. When his eyesight returned, it brought with it his amazing arithmetic faculties—along with wrenching, quaking, nose-bloodying headaches. As Max gets closer to finding his pattern, the headaches get worse and he starts having hallucinations: bright lights, a bleeding man, a rotting brain. In these scenes, Pi achieves some of the organic weirdness of Eraserhead, although Aronofsky isn't nearly as bold as David Lynch (Lynch never felt the need to explain anything).

But, like Good Will Hunting, Pi is actually less about the numbers than the person behind them. Aronofsky reinforces Max's self-imposed isolation at every chance—he has no friends except for a former professor (Mark Margolis), whose pursuit of mathematical truth physically wrecked him. There's a beautiful woman next door who brings Max food and is maybe interested in him, but when she knocks, he won't answer. The irony is established early and often—Max thinks he can understand the world in pure theoretical terms, but he can't deal with it in practice. And the world keeps intruding on his careful constructions—he's distracted by a neighboring couple having sex, his apartment is overrun with ants, some kind of ectoplasmic goop gets into his microprocessor.

The conflict sets up Pi's central question—if God is really in the details, can we understand Him through details alone? Max's goal is the ultimate in reductive science, existence stripped down to nothing but numbers. It's a fascinating pursuit, but Aronofsky is a director and not a mathematician. His film is ultimately the work of a humanist rather than a technophile, which makes for an ending that is both a relief and a letdown.

All of it is wrapped in some bravura low-budget filmmaking. Using high-contrast black-and-white cinematography and caffeinated techno music to convey Max's mounting excitement and paranoia, Aronofsky keeps the film in constant motion. It's like a music video for eggheads, and it's a pleasant surprise—too often, studios seem to assume that smart people don't like fun movies, and people who like fun movies aren't smart. It's nice to see someone thinks there's a market for a film that is both. Just one complaint—there's a scene where Max and a companion strap on some odd-looking equipment to take part in some sort of ritual. The movie cuts away before the ritual starts, and there's no mention of it afterward. What happened?

One big difference between Pi and Good Will Hunting is that Pi almost certainly won't get nominated for all those awards, even though it's a better movie (and, for that matter, Aronofsky is at least as much of a wunderkind as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck). Come to think of it, there must be some pattern to the exclusion of small, unique films from Oscar ceremonies. Let's see, if Tom Hanks equals X and Titanic equals Y, then...

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