Released last MAY and still playing in limited release around the country, What the #$*! (on DVD March 15) is a movie that defies easy categorization. One part science documentary, one part bad After School Special, and one part fifth-grade biology reel, the movie, taken as a whole, feels like a recruiting tool for a New Age fantasy group—which it essentially is.
The film is a such a bizarre mélange of disparate parts that it comes off as wildly uneven (it was, in fact, directed by three people), and none of it is altogether convincing. The basic notion is that people are moving through their lives unfulfilled, and that through the power of positive thinking, we can effect a tremendous physical change upon ourselves at the subatomic level. (Left unanswered is whether this process can also help us lose weight.) The film then alternates between talking-head experts (including Yelm psychic JZ Knight, who channels Ramtha), a painfully amateur dramatization starring Marlee Matlin as an unhappy Portland, Ore., photographer, and silly CGI animation showing anthropomorphic "mood" cells dancing to Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible." Yes, it's as weird as it sounds, and terribly acted to boot. When the Discovery Channel is outclassing your dramatic re-enactments, you're in trouble.
Yet, What the #$*! was one of the biggest indie hits of last year, grossing over $10 million. Its appeal, I suspect, is akin to that of the self- help industry and empowerment seminars: It provides easy answers to tough questions and, in the end, makes you feel better about yourself. Not a bad thing, per se, and many of the concepts presented are intriguing. If the movie had stuck to one style, it might have had something.
I admire the optimism of a movie that takes the time to focus on positive self-affirmation, but this particular blend of gooey mysticism and foggy science is only for those in need of a quick emotional salve.
ALSO OUT MARCH 15: The Oscar- winning The Incredibles (reviewed here soon); Jude Law's umpteenth movie of 2004, the needless Alfie remake, which also stars Susan Sarandon and Marisa Tomei; and Sandra Bullock's Miss Congeniality, repackaged with various extras preceding the sequel (in theaters March 24). From Criterion, Antonioni's 1962 The Eclipse stars Alain Delon and Monica Vitti. Also look for The Gospel of John, just in time for Easter.