Like I've oft lamented in these pages, it's very hard to pull off a movie about geniuses if the moviemakers themselves weren't that smart to start with. At times, the screenwriting is so lamentably poor ("Masterminds") or so average ("Little Man Tate") that any audience member with a high school diploma will walk away from the experience wondering why they felt smarter than the so-called "genius."
But some movies portray brilliance correctly, and "Pi" is one of them. The trick is to walk the fine line between revealing the genius in all of its intellectual splendor—but not boring your audience to tears. And though "Pi" is often a tough sell, it also has a haunting ambience that sticks with you long after the black-and-white frames have stopped flickering.
Sean Gullette is the hyper-genius Max, a man that has come close enough to figuring out the secrets of the stock market to have some pretty tough customers after his hindbrain. While looking for order in the mathematical universe, he believes he uncovers a 216-digit number pattern that can explain the mysteries of existence. Not only does this intrigue the students of the numerological Torah and some mean-spirited money hounds, but the research itself has triggered some terrifying migraines/epileptic fits in the decidedly warped brain pan of Max himself. The "migraine scenes" in this flick are the best on record, and like all good hypnotisms, the first three rows of the audience may suffer what's on stage.
For fans of pop cosmology, "Brief History of Time," and arcane math textbooks dolled up for a layman's grasp, "Pi" will be a satisfying, if not ultimately frustrating trip back to the parts of math class where we all started daydreaming in exponentials. The movie hints at all kinds of fascinating topics without ever going into them, which is a Catch-22 in itself. To delve much further would lose geometric portions of the audience, yet without the nuts and bolts, the whole thing can seem kinda flaky. I mean, I like seeing the chaos theory at work inside a coffee cup as much as the next guy, but sometimes I really, really do want to know more about math's "golden quadrangle" without editing out all the hard stuff.
Like "Henry Fool," (and to a lesser extent "Searching For Bobby Fischer"), "Pi" does a good job of showing someone's unease with their own brilliance and the strange sense of entitlement that comes with being smarter than everyone else in the world. Although it can delve into visual obscuria for brief stretches (made worse by the film being shot in a grainy black-and-white)—and it wrongfully suggests that a passion for science and passion for your fellow man cannot exist in the same heart—it does a magnificent job of portraying paranoia, loneliness, desperation and pain, even while using the language of math. Put on your erudite caps and give it a ride.
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