Pi

Released:  1998

Cast:  Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Samia Shoaib

SUMMARY:  Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a brilliant mathematician and number theorist who lives in New York’s Chinatown.  Max is able to do large, complicated math problems in his head at high speed, which delights his young neighbor, Jenna.  However, he also has to deal with headaches that cause extreme pain, and is essentially a recluse:  other than Jenna, he only really interacts with another neighbor, a young woman named Devi (Samia Shoaib), and his friend and mentor Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis).  Sol is also brilliant, and as doing in-depth research on the number pi when he suffered a stroke that partially paralyzed him; after this, Sol gave up his research.  Max is more interested in finding numbers and patterns that predict behavior and historical events:  in particular, he believes that there has to be a number/pattern that will predict the stock market.  To find this pattern, Max uses his self-built computer, Euclid, that takes up most of the space in his apartment.  One day, Max is printing out the next day’s picks when Euclid returns a large number, one stock pick, and then crashes.  Mas has no idea what the large number means, and the single stock pick is one-tenth its current value; Max concludes that his work has been for nothing, and throws out the paper.  However, the next day, the single stock performs as the computer predicted, and Max realizes that Euclid was right — and that the large number must mean something.  He can’t find the piece of paper he threw away, so in desperation he goes to Sol.  To his surprise, Sol becomes agitated when he hears the story, and somehow knows that the large number consisted of 216 digits.  After being pressed, Sol says that he found the number while studying pi, but then switches tack and tries to convince Max to temporarily shelve his work.  Around the same time, Max meets Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman) at a coffee shop, one of the few places he visits other than Sol’s apartment.  Lenny is a Hasidic Jew, and when he learns that Max is into numbers, he brings up that he is studying Gematria.  Gematria assigns a number to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and coincidences in the sums of different words have led some to believe that the Torah is actually a numerical code sent by God.  Max initially ignores this, but when he realizes that Gematria shares traits with the Gibonacci sequence, he becomes interested.

Max is also approached by Marcy Dawson, a representative of a Wall Street firm who has read his papers and is interested in his work.  Max has no interest in working with Marcy, but she repeatedly tracks him down and even puts him under surveillance.  Finally, she offers him a computer chip called the Ming Mecca, which is still classified, in return for his work.  On the condition that she calls off the surveillance, Max agrees, and uses the Ming Mecca to rebuild Euclid.  He then begins studying the Torah and Gematria, but this causes Euclid to return the 216-digit and go haywire.  Max desperately tries to print the number, and when this fails, he starts writing it down.  Partway through, Max suddenly sees the pattern, and passes out.  When he recovers, he has internalized the number, and is able to predict the stock market conditions.  Unfortunately, he also finds that he has some sort of vein or small object protruding from his head, and his headaches become more frequent and severe.  Once again, Sol tells Max that he should stop his research.  One evening, Marcy and some men appear out of nowhere and grab Max.  Marcy has learned that Max knows the number, but has only given them half of it, which caused huge problems.  Marcy is ready to have Max killed when Lenny and some other men suddenly appear in a car and rescue Max.  However, Lenny also turns on Max and demands the number:  at a meeting with several other Hasidic Jews, Max learns that to them, the number represents the true (and unknown) name of God, which will help begin the messianic age.  To their anger and surprise, Max refuses to tell them, saying that the number had been given to him for a reason.  He manages to get away and goes to Sol’s, but finds that Sol has died of a second stroke.  In Sol’s apartment, he finds a paper with the entire number on it.  He takes it with him back to his own apartment, but is struck by a headache.  He tries to go without the medicines that help him cope, but in his rage and pain he wrecks Euclid.  Max then comes to the belief that his headaches are related to the number.  He passes out from the pain, and when he comes to, he burns the paper with the number, then uses a power drill to put a hole in his own skull (a trepanning).  Some time later, Jenna approaches Max in a park and asks him to do large computations in his head; Max smiles, and says that he can’t do it anymore.

MY TAKE:  Boy, this is another weird movie.  I’m sure that most people know, thanks to The Da Vinci Code, that there are numbers and patterns like the Fibonacci sequence and pi, that can be found in myriad different things in nature.  Max believes that there is actually a pattern to describe everything in nature (though not necessarily the same pattern for everything), and in particular, wants to find one to predict the stock market.  Apparently, the same number represents the true name of God, which is really important to a group of Hasidic Jews.  Of course, anybody smart enough to figure out this number has to be a little crazy (I believe that all geniuses are a little crazy), and Max becomes obsessed with the number.  He’s already got terrible headaches, and is a paranoid recluse, so coming across a number that some really powerful people want only worsens that:  there actually are people watching and following him.  As the situation heats up, Max seems to go nuttier and nuttier, until he can’t take it anymore and gives himself head surgery with a power tool in his bathroom.  Personally, I’m unsure of how this worked, since trepanning is basically just drilling a hole in the skull, usually to relieve pressure or swelling or something.  I don’t think it would actually cause any memory problems, or make somebody lose their mathematical ability.  To do that, I think you would have to actually go into the brain, and doing that with a power tool seems like a recipe for instant death.  Actually, I’m skeptical of the concept in general, because I find it hard to believe that any one number could accurately predict the stock market every day forever.  The stock market’s changes are influenced by world events, and I have trouble believing that one number could factor in all these events, even ones that we haven’t considered yet (like space-age technology), forever, accurately.  Maybe that’s the math nerd coming out in me, but there you go.  The film does do a great job of making you feel what it’s like to be in Max’s head, particularly when he experiences the headaches.  It’s almost like you go through visual pain, and the more tense the movie becomes, the more herky-jerky the camera work gets.

RATING:  Interesting, but I’m skeptical of the realism.

 

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