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Substance abuse

Requiem for a Dream ranks high on style, low on content

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Remember back when you were in school -- prep, high or middle? In the those hazy, golden days, when you wrote a paper or a theme or whatever, the hard-working teacher gave the tax payers (or your parents) more bang for their buck by giving you not one, but two grades. One, usually closer to the outset of the alphabet, was for "content," for the ideas, a bone thrown presumably to keep you from switching off your brain entirely. The other, often more vexing, grade was for "mechanics," the stick behind the carrot, to keep impressionable young minds from, comma, splices. And sentence fragments.

It was, and is, a good system. Not only did the kinder, gentler content grades forestall many a capricious grade-school grounding, but it allowed what the writer was saying to be considered separately from how he or she chose to say it -- not always a bad thing. If film critics were allowed to use this split system, we might be able to be fair to Requiem for a Dream.

Director Darren Aronofsky's second feature, Requiem may be, in some circles, one of this year's most anticipated films. His maiden effort, the low-budget, math-and-mysticism thriller Pi, became a darling of the indie circuit. The picture did well at the art-house box office, helping to put distributor Artisan into the big leagues, and Pi's strikingly raw and restless, low-budget style raised a lot of critical eyebrows.

It also raised the bar for the follow-up. Aronofsky seems to know that directors who make a big splash with their first feature almost never improve with success, and he took his time picking his next project. To his credit, he opted not to rest on his laurels and do Pi Squared. Shifting gears from Cabala to character study, the director chose to adapt Hubert Selby Jr.'s bleak and convoluted 1998 tale of addiction and despair. It's exactly the sort of novel that literati gleefully call unfilmmable, and Aronofsky uses every trick in the book, and even invents some new ones, to try to prove them wrong.

Judged on form alone, on "mechanics," Requiem gets an A for Astounding. It may even rate an A+. Following four addicts -- a Brooklyn junky-turned-dealer (Jared Leto); his equally strung-out uptown girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly); his black partner in crime (Marlon Wayans); and his mother (Ellen Burstyn), a widow hooked on TV and diet pills -- through both their unique private hells and their shared labyrinth of need, the director's mercurial, expressive and dynamic range of techniques allows us not only painfully intimate peeks inside these people, but sometimes into several people at once. Using split screens, time-lapse photography, a variety of camera speeds and the disorienting tracking close-ups that made his debut so electrifying, Aronofsky manages to capture the rush and ravages, the passion and panic, the euphoria and the abyss of addiction with an immediacy and clarity that is almost exhausting.

Forget the almost. By the time you twist your way through to the film's overwhelmingly grim climax, you will probably be on the lookout for a very high bridge, very strong pain killers or a very stiff drink, which may not keep with the film's strident, anti-substance-abuse agenda.

And substance is very much a problem for young Darren. He so aggressively absorbs the audience into the subjective experience of his characters that he practically re-invents cinematic narrative technique in telling his tale; the tale itself turns out to be little more than a pat and random collection of cliches.

With the notable exception of Burstyn's brilliantly played, pill-popping Golden Girl (a new and powerful figure), the people in the picture dwindle to types. Instead of giving us new insights, the flash and fury of the film's surface becomes a dazzling veil behind which plays a hum-drum cautionary tale that is half Urban Legend and half After School Special. Here, we have the rise and fall of a dealer hooked on his own product; there, the girl who had everything, reduced to peddling her flesh for a fix (and not just normal prostitution, mind, but really dirty stuff like sex with other girls); there, the infernal hospital full of callous orderlies and condescending doctors just aching to lobotomize you at the slightest provocation. As naive as only a congenital New Yorker can be, Aronofsky even gives us a good ol' fashioned redneck road gang, straight out of Cool Hand Luke, as if the city were Paradise and Perdition combined and everything outside the five boroughs were one big Cracker Purgatory.

Finally, all the genius they poured into Requiem, all the beautifully hallucinogenic highs and shattering blue lows, boil down to the profound and startling revelation that drug abuse is bad. Not exactly news, but then again that's more than the makers of Trainspotting accomplished.

But we really shouldn't hold the banal predictability lurking under Requiem for a Dream's exquisite surface too much against it. Perhaps a film as radically accomplished in terms of style as Requiem for a Dream will inevitably ring a little hollow inside. Or maybe it's just that we have all become too well inoculated against Just-Say-No scare tactics for the director's nightmare vision to really hit us where we live. And I'm sure Darren's parents will be so happy with that A+ that they won't even look twice at the C- it accompanies.

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