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Requiem for a Dream

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Requiem for a Dream

Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Rated: NR
RunTime: 102 Minutes
Release Date: October 2000
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Christopher McDonald, Sean Gullette, Bill Buell, Keith David, Louise Lasser, Ben Shenkman

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When the gifted film maker Darren Aronofsky hit the scene two years ago with the wildly imaginative, $60,000 movie called "Pi"--about an obsessed mathematician who thinks that numbers could determine God's identity and, more important, calculate the course of the stock market--the relatively few people privileged to take the movie in knew that an innovator was born. The sincere performances by a no- name cast coupled with attention-getting visuals (particularly when Sean Gullette's character got himself into the throes of a cluster headache) told us that we could expect more of the same ingenuity in films to come. The gobs of additional capital for his current feature has not spoiled Aronofsky. He is well on the road to achieving the American Dream that he so brutally savages in "Requiem for a Dream," though we doubt that he'll fall into the trap met by virtually all of the principal characters of this grisly tragedy.

While the film's surface says "Beware of drugs" (in much the way that other such works as the groundbreaking "The Man with the Golden Arm" and the New York-situated "Panic in Needle Park"), Aronfsky and his co-writer, Hubert Selby Jr. on whose book the screenplay is based, take on a grander subject: the illusory pursuit of the American Dream.

Its young, energetic, and Calvin-Klein-thin principal Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) wants cash to allow him to break out of his lumpen neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn together with his lonely mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn). There's nothing wrong with this aspect of the Dream. What makes the situation compelling as drama while savaging the notion of getting ahead is that the characters are obsessed with arriving too quickly. If fantasies of wealth, fame and attention are global in scope, the ambition to attain them fast fast fast is fundamentally American.

"Requiem" plaits the story of a number of people addicted to drugs, the younger ones interested in heroin as both a means of getting high and a way to earn big bucks, the older member addicted to amphetamines as a means of rapidly losing weight in order to look great on a promise TV appearance.

The story begins as grimly as it concludes. Harry has once again broken the chain that secures the family TV to the radiator, carrying the equipment yet again to the local pawn shop together with his drug-eating pal, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), both of whom require the money not only to secure heroin fixes for themselves but to expand their business as pushers. Sara, once again buying back the TV from the hock shop whose proprietor is her long-term neighbor, feeds her own addiction to an infomercial hosted by the slick and charismatic Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald), who is able to evoke amazing cooperation from his dumbed-down live audience. Receiving a cryptic phone call which promises her an appearance on television some time in the future, Sara is determined to fit into a red dress she had worn many years earlier, visits a Dr. Feelgood, and begins gulping speed pills--which she ultimately takes in huge quantities causing her refrigerator to bounce up and down like a character in a Stephen King story. While she harbors perfectly respectable hopes for her son Harry to get married and provide a grandchild for her, Harry carries on a prolonged affair with the addicted Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly), an affair which is on an appealingly joyful foundation until the roof and indeed all the walls give way.

The plot, however mocking of the quick fix toward the American Dream, does not give the film its primal value. What lifts "Requiem" above similar movies done during the drug-happy 1970's such as Ivan Passer's "Born to Win"-- about an ex-hairdresser (also set in New York City) and his $100-a-day heroin habit)--is the frequent but not excessive use of surreal effects. The bounding refrigerator is as worn a plot device as the romping furniture in "The Exorcist," and yet under Mr. Aronofsky's directorial eye the ice box is able give us in the audience the cold shivers. "The Man with the Golden Arm" has nothing on Harry's festering and gangrous veins, which even his seen-it-all partner, Tyrone cannot bear to look at, nor can the doctor who inspects the infected appendage (played by the imitable Dylan Baker in a surprisingly brief cameo). Time after time, Aronofsky throws in an MTV-inspired cartoon, showing two gargantuan pills dissolving as though in liquid, followed by a pop pop pop and an eyeball with an inflating pupil. Aronofsky repeats this effect with more humorous ones when showing the ruggedly dieting Sara rapidly consuming a grapefruit, a hard boiled egg, and a cup of Joe for breakfast.

The cast as a whole rises to the occasion. Ellen Burstyn, seen shortly after the opening of this film in James Gray's "The Yards," delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as an aging mother whose only real problem, loneliness, turns into the catastrophic dilemma of a psychosis that must be treated with electroshock. Her transformation from a typical lower- middle class Jewish woman on the rundown shores of Brooklyn's Brighton Beach to something out of Anatole Litvak's 1948 groundbreaker "The Snake Pit" is a credit to her skills as a major American performer. Marlon Wayans rises to the occasion. Fresh from an over-the-top manic stint in "Scary Movie," Wayans turns in a productive act as a thoroughly wired addict looking to score both the next fix and the American Dream. Even Woody Allen would appreciate the comic touch of elderly women lined up on beach chairs outside an aging tenement, all crying out, "Hello Harry" over the glare of their sun reflectors.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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