Film Reviews

Weird Science?

I've just seen a film that is either a brilliant parody of scholarly documentaries or else final proof that I am the stupidest person on Earth.

Obviously, I prefer to believe the former -- that What the #$*! Do We Know: A Quantum Fable is a genius of a mockumentary that spoofs not only quantum physics and the people who devote their lives to it, but also those humorless movies that soft-pedal science to those of us who wouldn't know the nucleus of an atom if it entered us from behind. Because this movie is too wacko to be what it claims to be: a semi-serious documentary that uses quantum physics to explore human psychology and its role in the creation of reality.

Either way, What the #$*! is a huge success, because it's a film about questioning reality that never seems entirely real. Filmmakers William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente have stretched the documentary form so far (because American audiences are craving a new kind of entertainment, Arntz recently told a reporter) that it always borders on self-parody. Filmed mostly in Portland, What the #$*! is a whacked-out hybrid that splices a fictional narrative (starring Marlee Matlin) onto high-comic computer animation clips and documentary-style talking-head interviews with leading scientists and mystics. These guys grin and leer and ask dead-earnest questions like, "How can we continue to see the world as real if the self that is determining it as real is intangible?" and, "Why are we here?" and even, "What is God?"

No, I'm not kidding -- but the filmmakers often seem to be. What the #$*! may want to enlighten us to complex scientific concepts (often by oversimplifying them, presumably for morons like me), but its way-over-the-top comedy derails that message. In a fictional sequence set at a Polish wedding that's meant to describe how people are addicted to their own emotions, two horny, drunken teens set off in search of "Foxes Who Put Out." Meanwhile, Matlin stumbles on the best man banging one of the bridesmaids in a rest-room stall; when she mistakes him for the groom, a pal tells her, "Polacks all look the same in a tux."

By the time the computer-animated cells (which have faces and attitude and look amazingly like the McDonaldland Grimace) began burping and punching each other out, I'd become convinced that I was watching a knockoff of the kind of faux documentary that filmmaker Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) has made famous. How else to explain a serious discussion of peptides and cell structure followed by a clip of a gelatinous, google-eyed cell shouting, "It's party time!"

As weird as the animation is, the narrative portion of the film is even stranger. Matlin plays a recently divorced photographer whose world is literally unraveling around her. Is it her anti-depressants? Her new roommate (Elaine Hendrix), a madcap artist who paints with her feet? Or has Matlin merely stumbled into a mysterious version of the world where little bald boys perform magic feats on intercity basketball courts while spouting rhetoric about the time-space continuum? The film ends with Matlin in the bathtub, writing messages of love on her naked body with glitter, because -- as the film's exhaustive Web site explains -- "She has realized how thoughts affect the body, and . . . communicates directly to the world of thought, or intent, that she loves her body."

There are plenty of experts on hand to help us sort this all out, although I wound up more confused than informed by their constant blathering. Psychiatrist and author Fred Alan Wolf's explanation that "There is no Ôout there' out there" made me want to pitch something at the screen, and JZ Knight, a dumpy blonde mystic with scary eye makeup who claims to be channeling the 35,000-year-old spirit of an Atlantean god named Ramtha, just plain gave me the willies. If the filmmakers meant to lighten the tone of their film by goofing on the concept of reality, they've done so not wisely but too well.

Portlanders lined up for the film when it opened there in February, many of them returning for multiple viewings. What the #$*! is enjoying a similar cult following here in an exclusive engagement at Harkins' Valley Art Theatre, and is about to be dumped into general release. Meantime, I've decided to take the filmmakers' advice about creating my own reality, and choose to believe that what I saw, when I watched What the #$*!, was not a documentary about quantum physics but a sequel to From Justin to Kelly: The American Idol Movie, in which Simon Cowell is made to sing a dozen songs while undertalented teen vocalists make fun of him and cause him to cry. And therefore I heartily recommend What the #$*! as fine family entertainment.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela