DopamineReviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 07/08/03 16:13:24
(Worth A Look)
How come most romantic movies about ordinary people don’t work? How come all situations have to be solved and all sunsets have to be bright? How come the chemistry often feels forced and the screenplay dumbed down to the point of car chases and dopey crashed weddings? At what point did it become less about the confusion of love and more about trying to top that sperm-in-the-hair gag from “There’s Something About Mary”? Love is lost on most Hollywood filmmakers. If the story can’t be summed up in one sentence (“It’s a modern-day Cinderella”) and the characters don’t look too sunny on the poster, they must feel the movie should not be made.What a shame. I also fear that with the success of the sweet but shallow “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the epidemic of sitcom romantic comedies on the big screen is bound to get worse. So, how come most romantic movies about ordinary people don’t work? Because they have become too ordinary.
Leave it to filmmakers such as David Gordon Green (“All The Real Girls”) and Mark Decena, director of the Sundance hit “Dopamine,” to breathe some new life into this sagging genre. “Dopamine” depicts a guy trying to get in touch with his inner feelings as his mother sits catatonic with Alzheimer’s. It has a kindergarten teacher who longs to get back in touch with a part of her past that has left a gaping wound. It has a cute computerized bird creation that binds these two lost souls together. It has long passages devoted to the bodily chemicals that cause us to feel complex emotions. Sound icky? I assure you that you won’t cringe one bit during this movie.
“Dopamine” is one of those movies that walks a fine line between sensitive and maudlin, but miraculously never crosses over into the latter. It has characters who have mystery to them and it is worth the audience’s time to try and figure them out. It has two enormously engaging leads (John Livingston and Sabrina Lloyd) guiding us through their insecurities, flaws and friendship. And unlike many romantic movies, it has a reason for having been made. “Dopamine” is about trying to figure out the true inner workings of love and how our past traumas can sever our connections to it.
It starts with Rand (Livingston) and his team of computer engineers who have created a computer generated bird named Koy Koy, a program capable of reacting to words and feelings made by any human who talks to it. The investors of this project insist that the boys try the program out on grade schoolers to see how they react to it. Through this connection, Rand meets Sarah, who doesn’t quite buy into the idea of a computer-generated character taking the place of a pet rabbit.
This question of synthetic reality taking the place of real emotion does not get brushed off. The movie uses it as a springboard for much deeper discussions involving our own synthetic reality. Dopamine, as defined in the movie, represents an addictive chemical in our bodies that help us to feel, among other things, love. Rand seems more taken with the chemical side of love and emotion than with the over-all pleasure with which it brings. He has yet to get over his mother being stricken with Alzheimer’s and not being able to make certain connections. She has no idea she even has a loving son or husband. The love between Rand’s parents that he once knew made him a believer in the emotional side of love, but the sudden illness has made him a cynic.
Sarah also has a past trauma that has caused her decision-making process to go on automatic pilot at times, but I will leave that for you to discover yourself. The ideas and questions that propel “Dopamine” will undoubtedly launch some post-screening discussions between friends and loved-ones. If you know that love comes from chemical interactions within the bloodstream, does that take away some of its luster? What about the chemicals that cause people to shy away from love? Does being in love have to make sense? If so, how much? “Dopamine” doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but that certainly doesn’t make watching the movie an empty experience.
Sometimes, it takes the right actors to pull off this kind of material and Decena has cast just the right two leads. As Sarah, Sabrina Lloyd possesses a natural beauty combined with a deeply rooted strength with which she could hold her own in any given situation as well as vulnerability and sadness that earns our sympathy. Likewise, Livingston has just the right kind of rough exterior that makes a soul-sickened character such as Rand a likable and charismatic male lead. These two don’t look like the sunny, well-tanned faces you normally see on a poster for a romantic comedy or drama. These two actually look like real people.“Dopamine” also shies away from forcing its characters into a contrived happy ending. The two characters don’t go walking into the sunset together so much as drive into a new set of problems. Yet, through this situation, they find themselves better equipped to handle the complexities that arise out of emotional human contact. With “Dopamine,” we are merely watching a chapter in these people’s lives that will eventually lead to the next chapter rather than the end of the book. More mistakes will be made, more disagreements and arguments will ensue, but by going with the flow of emotion rather than constantly questioning the roots of it, they have truly evolved ever so slightly. At least, I like to think so.
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