Once upon a time, the typical film student's first movie usually wasn't about ruthless criminals or breezy romantic roundelays among the postgraduate set. That was back in the day when people still believed in art films and young creative types indulged in brief periods of idealistic fervor (full of vows not to "sell out") before either giving up or signing on with the biggest entertainment conglomerate they could find. Back then, student films were almost always shot in black and white on 16mm film (or worse), and had weird camerawork and baffling, disjointed story lines about tormented, talented young men (not unlike, perhaps, the filmmakers themselves?) whose passionate commitment to some lofty goal left them misunderstood and nobly, if painfully, cut off from ordinary people. Darren Aronofsky's new film, "Pi," recalls those halcyon days, and that it feels so welcome is testimony to either 1) just how long it's been, or, 2) the virulent exasperation caused by witnessing mobs of young, backward-baseball-cap-wearing hipster directors at Sundance jumping for studio contracts like seals for sardines.
"Pi" (the film's official title is the mathematical symbol, which shows up rather funkily on some readers' computers) is the story of Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a reclusive math genius intent on running some kind of calculation on pi that will somehow allow him to decode hidden patterns in both the stock market and the cabala (even a humanities major like me can tell that the math aspect of all this is kind of sketchy). Max spends most of his time holed up in his apartment behind a lock-studded door, fiddling around with a jerry-built computer (wires, components and -- this also strikes me as dubious -- monitors everywhere). Despite an extremely pretty and solicitous neighbor (Samia Shoaib) and a retired mentor who nags him to get a life (Mark Margolis), Max's paranoia and isolation intensify as he approaches, he thinks, his goal. He makes a Faustian bargain with a corporate operative who tempts him with some kind of megachip ("They're not even declassified!") and finds himself attracting the interest of a group of Hasidim seeking the number they consider "the true name of God."
The movie's low-budget look neatly matches the claustrophobia of Max's life, but the filmmakers have also devised some special shooting methods for certain scenes. These sequences -- breathless and jangly chases, for the most part -- look terrific. They make up for the film's tendency to sink into one of two pedestrian formulas: basic thriller, or tortured-genius-going-crazy psychological drama. It's never quite clear how seriously Max's sanity wobbles. The poor guy suffers from chronic migraine attacks, which are followed by blackouts and hallucinations that leave you wondering how much of the film's action exists only in Max's mind. His visions have a stark spookiness -- a man, face obscured, standing on the opposite subway platform with blood slowly dripping from his suited sleeve, is one -- that makes them creepier than the corporate thugs and religious fanatics (real or imagined?) hounding Max for his magic number. It's precisely when "Pi" is the most arty and least "commercial," when it's serving up head scratchers instead of intrigue, that it's most entertaining.
During a cultural moment infatuated with mathematicians (cf "Good Will Hunting" and two bestselling books about Fermat's Last Theorem), "Pi" sounds an oddly sour note. The other slightly fusty aspect of Aronofsky's film is that he seems to believe, like Max's mentor Sol, that intellectual passions can't coexist with a remotely normal emotional life, that extraordinary mathematical talent is a kind of disease. Concepts like the Golden Spiral and chaos theory get tossed into the film's mix but they're never really part of its essence, which is cramped, jittery and fearful. "Mathematics is the language of nature," Max theorizes in one of the movie's abundant voice-overs, but in the world of "Pi," that's more an expression of pathology than enthusiasm or, dare I say it, a form of love.
In one arena, though, "Pi" knows no peer. This film boasts the best depiction of migraines I've ever seen, from the panicky moments when the prodrome begins (in Max's case, his hand starts shaking) and the frantic gobbling of medication to head off the beast, to the abject misery and fantasies about taking an electric drill to that throbbing temple. After Max's first two attacks, I was duly impressed, but by the fifth and sixth I was feeling a bit shaky myself. Sure enough, the next day I was felled by my own migraine, so any recommendation of "Pi" must come with that caveat as well.