Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 01/28/03 01:24:12

"It Doesn't Take Chemicals To Love This Movie"
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2003 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Romantic comedies are pre-programmed. Chances are nine times out of ten when going into seeing the latest Hollywood concoction of the genre, it’s usually a stew with only one vegetable. Some can be enjoyable on the strength of its charming stars or some uncommon wit in the writing department but there’s no doubt where they’re all headed. The journey may be more important than the predetermined outcome, but doesn’t love deserve more? It’s far and reaching, but occasionally a filmmaker will tackle the subject beyond wacky coincidences and an urgency for catchy pop songs and get it right. Mark Decena is the latest.

Rand (John Livingston) has been tolling for three years with his fellow software designers Winston (Bruno Campos) and Johnson (Reuben Grundy) on an A.I. computer companion. Koy Koy is a simulated bird that responds to voice recognition. Whether you want it to sing a song or just make eye contact with you, all one needs is to communicate and it shall respond. Rand has been rather closed-off as of late to long-term relationships since his father (William Windom) has preached that love is nothing more than a series of chemical reactions that we have no control over; a rationale he’s subscribed to since Rand’s mother developed Alzheimer’s. That was before Sarah.

Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd) teaches preschool where Rand and associates are about to market-test their creation over his objections. Why should their hard work be decided over in an instant by those whose feelings have barely progressed past the happy-and-sad stages of their coloring projects? Sarah echoes Rand's sentiments, though its clear that knee-jerk capitalism will always prevail. Having also lost a part of her own life, she may be ready to look for something past the quick feel-good nature of a one-nighter. But are two people capable of connecting when one believes in chemicals and the other feels chemistry?

The speeches of Rand’s father pepper the discussion throughout the film. What is romance if nothing but a fancy form of foreplay? If the chemical reactions in one’s body were to die, does love die along with it? Rand’s reservations even leads him to toy with the possibility of creating a mate for his animated creation. Test and experiment, test and experiment says the brain that couldn’t die, but is it our gray matter that tells us how we’re feeling or do our personal experiences grow into something deeper?

Director Mark Decena and co-writer, Tim Breitbach, have formulated that rare screenplay that adapts out of its characters and not a predetermined road. Rand and Sarah don’t just have a present, but pasts that will dictate their future. These are real characters in a real world. We don’t feel them being pervaded along and the filmmakers move the story, absent of contrivances, to the natural destinations of all its plotlines.

Credit cinematographer Rob Humphreys alongside Decena for adding texture to the city of San Francisco with its foggy airscapes looming over the Golden Gate and washed-out dawn-and-dusk moments of reflection. Even a simple living room scene between Rand and his father becomes a powerful double tearjerk when a one-shot reveals more than originally thought. Between moments like these, its dreamlike hazes and some terrific computer effects to boot, this is as solid-looking an independent production as you’re likely to see.

Images and words are just stepping stones to falling in love, however, and it takes faces and personalities to make it real, as witnessed in Dopamine’s cast. John Livingston gets to internalize a great portion of Rand; shy and irresolute, a guy who would give anything to recapture the storybook romance of his parents into his own life, but whose doubts keep him from making just the right move. Bruno Campos has the moviestar look to play perhaps the “wrong guy” in any number of Hollywood romances, but makes a nice (and believable) transition from the self-centered friend into someone recognizing their own flaws and how they have affected others. These characters need the perfect woman and it begins and ends by casting Sabrina Lloyd.

The best actresses can make you fall in love with them. Not just their characters, but THEM. They make us believe that what they say comes not from the script, but from their own soul. If we met them, had a drink and felt something, they would confirm those feelings. Sabrina Lloyd has that quality. Known mainly for her role of Natalie on TV’s Sports Night and more recently a recurring role on Ed, there’s a gentle sincerity in her face that communicates volumes when it comes time to speak from the heart. She could have no dialogue and we would believe everything she’s feeling. There are numerous shots of Sabrina’s face in the film and the camera doesn’t just love her – it’s looking to get down on one leg and propose.

The title refers to the brain’s natural chemical that affects mood. Similar to a form of adrenaline, scientists associate it with feelings of assurance and euphoria. Is it something though to rely on as the cause for that funny pit in your stomach when you feel a connection with another human being? I’ve been known to get that same feeling after seeing a movie that I loved, yet I’ve never credited a chemical reaction for any of my favorite films. That feeling came over me after seeing Dopamine. In less than two hours, I had laughed, was moved and, thinking back upon it, continued to smile for several hours and days afterwards. As the Bob Dylan song, “Sarah”, says (wonderfully covered by Tim Hockenberry during the final credits) “so easy to look at, so hard to define.” That’s what love is, but Dopamine gives it its best shot.

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