- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

In an otherwise forgettable movie, “The Devil’s Advocate,” Al Pacino had one imperishable line. Love, his devilish character said, is “biochemically no different than eating large quantities of chocolate.”

Goodbye, romance; hello, biological determinism.

That was in 1997, and our interest in the machinery of human emotions has only increased since then, thanks to an avalanche of popular treatises in evolutionary psychology from the likes of Steven Pinker and Robert Wright.

Mark Decena, a young director making his debut under the auspices of the Sundance Film Series, has given us a full movie’s worth of ratiocination on the subject.

If you think this kind of movie would be rough sledding, you’re not far off. In one passionless love scene, a character reels off all the hormonal goings-on in his body. The gal he’s trying to seduce becomes creeped out and promptly puts a stop to the romp — and you’ll be tempted to do the same to the movie.

Still, “Dopamine” — named for the body’s own “pleasure drug” — keeps the pharmacology to something like a minimum. (Mr. Decena is clearly passionate about the science, and he seems well-informed about it.)

And it actually salvages a love story from the frigid chemical wreckage.

Rand (John Livingston) is a high-tech animator working on interactive software that promises to put humans in virtual touch with a playful computer carp called “Koi Koi.”

With an incommunicative mother suffering from Alzheimer’s and a father who, in his detached way of coping, has given up on the higher explanations of love, cynical Rand falls for Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd), an aide at a nursery school where he’s test-marketing Koi Koi.

His pals Winston (Bruno Campos) and Johnson (Reuben Grundy) round out the preppily named trio of yuppies working for a San Francisco tech start-up backed by Japanese finance.

If the go-go-‘90s tone seems anachronistic, give Mr. Decena some credit: He wrote the movie before the Nasdaq crashed, and he found a decently improvisational way of updating his script to reflect our millennial economic woes.

The problem with “Dopamine” is that Rand and Sarah are too self-aware to be believable as lovebirds; they chatter their way through every step of courtship, even, as noted above, in the sack itself.

Even with all the heady jargon swirling around, surprisingly little happens. It’s as if a three-act romantic drama was crammed into a Discovery Channel documentary, resulting in an intellectually compelling but fragmented picture.

Plus, Mr. Decena felt the need to constantly telegraph their attraction with an annoying device: When Rand and Sarah give each other goo-goo eyes, the action cuts quickly to brief animated sequences that show all the microscopic moving parts of the human libido.

The movie is far better when Mr. Decena lets old-fashioned storytelling do the trick. Rand’s wised-up scientism is thrown into doubt — belief? — when he finds out what we learn early on: that Sarah had a one-night stand with Winston, the handsome “playa” of the bunch.

Rand’s jealousy is palpable, and we need no cellular map to recognize it.

Is it just the proprietary juices of the male mammal? Or is it something more meaningful?

“Dopamine” chews on a question that will take more than this little movie to digest. Its conclusion is cautiously hopeful but modest in its claims.

Even if you don’t believe in transcendental love, there’s still plenty of mystery to the rituals of human romance.

**

TITLE: “Dopamine”

RATING: R (Strong language; sexual situations, nudity; brief drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Mark Decena. Produced by Debbie Brubaker and Ted Fettig. Written by Mr. Decena and Timothy Breitbach. Cinematography by Robert Humphreys. Original music by Eric Holland.

RUNNING TIME: 79 minutes, exclusively at Loews Georgetown.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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