Darren Aronofsky makes his directoral debut with this uneven paranoid thriller, pi. It’s filled with plenty of new concepts and ideas, but also with a healthy dose of pretension.
Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a brilliant mathematician on the borders of madness. He theorizes that since mathematics is the language of nature, everything can be comprehended purely and completely on the basis of numbers. The key to understanding is to find the patterns that underlie everything.
To confirm his theories, Max builds an archaic/state-of-the-art computer system to crunch numbers on the stock market. Once he discovers the key, he should be able to predict stock prices at will. But things don’t work out as smoothly as he plans.
He keeps running into a peculiar bug, one which may have caused his mentor, Sol (Mark Margolis), to give up mathematics completely. In addition, he is being hounded by a rabid Wall Street exec (Pamela Hart), as well as Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a man who believes Max’s number crunching can lead to the understanding of God.
Aronofsky has talent. It’s not every writer-director who could combine topics as diverse as Fibbonacci numbers, phrenology, Kabalah, Chaos Theory, numerology and Go into a single coherent (if not terribly accurate) film. Plus, he is able to go a long way on a low budget, producing some striking cinematography as he goes.
However, despite all of that, pi fails as a film. There are two stories in the film (Max and his theories, and Max and his descent into madness), but neither one is satisfactory. The former is implausible, strains credibility, and is ultimately pointless. The latter is more interesting at times, but while it certainly gets disturbing at times, it’s all style and little substance.
Part of the problem rests with Sean Gullette. As the lead character, he is rather bland (particularly as a “mad mathematician”). None of the actors in the film give stellar performances, but in an introspective storyline, Gullette’s performance is key, and not quite up to par.
pi is stylistically interesting, but empty overall. There’s a thin line between genius and incomprehensible madness. The film falls solidly in the latter camp.