The action begins one Coney Island summer. For lonely Jewish widow Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), addicted to her favorite TV game show, a phone call convinces her she may be invited on the program. Desperate to lose weight for the show, Sara begins crash dieting and, when diets fail, visits a diet doctor who prescribes her pills but never even bothers to get her name. The rainbow of pills, coupled with coffee, give Sara a sudden energy burst and the extra pounds begin to disappear.
Meanwhile, Sara's son Harry (Jared Leto) and his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) decide to become dealers themselves, insisting it's just a temporary gig to front the cash so Harry's designer girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) can open a clothing store. But as summer yields to fall, the three young entrepreneurs have begun to sample their own product, and they are soon hooked. Sara, for her part, keeps popping diet pills, but she has begun to have disturbing fantasies, and there's been no word from the game show. As fall becomes winter, these four lives snowball out of control.
The continuing decline of these characters would soon become pretty tedious stuff were it not for the thoroughly imaginative and original ways Aronofsky represents the mounting addictions. Rapid and brief montages of visual and auditory symbols--a human iris enlarging, a needle piercing skin--play like leitmotifs throughout the film; the montages make up an effective shorthand technique that takes on its own rhythm. Accompanied by mournful violin music performed by the Kronos Quartet, the sequences are both jarring and intoxicating.
Each of these characters has an essentially kind nature and, thankfully, a lack of self pity that makes their descent into addiction intriguing. The acting is so good across the board that sometimes you wish Aronofsky would slow down long enough to let his actors shine. One scene does just that: a conversation between Harry and Sara in her kitchen in which he realizes, to his disgust, that his own mother is an addict. It's a fascinating and ironic epiphany, beautifully played and not at all sentimentalized. And it makes you realize that when he sets his mind to it, Aronofsky can work a simple scene of human interaction as powerfully as he can play with visual technique. Starring Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans and Ellen Burstyn. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Hubert Selby, Jr. and Darren Aronofsky. Produced by Eric Watson and Palmer West. An Artisan release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 102 min