Imagine you're at a party with a bunch of strangers, and in the middle of the standard flyweight chatter, somebody starts talking about something that really matters. One by one, folks excitedly weigh in; for a moment, the world seems a better, smarter, more inspiring place.
Then some well-meaning but cranially underequipped soul intrudes on the conversation, and there's not a snob enough in the room to tell him that he's ruining it for everybody.
That's the best analogy for What the #$*! Do We Know!?, an admirably far-reaching documentary that mutates from "godsend" to "cutesy metaphysical infomercial" with alarming speed.
Concerned with no less a subject than ready? the nature of human existence, the movie conscripts a battalion of scientists, physicians, theologians, professors, mystics and other authorities to discuss modern notions of being. Quantum physics is the chosen paradigm, with a lengthy side trip into brain mapping and the role of chemicals in emotional response.
You'd have to be fatally anti-intellectual not to be riveted by the vast majority of this stuff. With a brief, disarming tip of the hat to its own potential for fuzzy New Age-ism, the film details the ways in which human intent can alter physical reality, the less-than-tangible properties of atomic particles and the potential of matter to occupy two physical spaces simultaneously among other concepts guaranteed to fry the cortexes of Matrix disciples. (There's even a repeated reference to truth-seekers going "down the rabbit hole.") But it's no mere navel-gazing exercise. Co-directors Mark Vicente, Betsy Chasse and William Arntz are out to compile a humanistic portrait of what the world really is and how we fit into it.
The filmmakers have taken the unusual step of refusing to identify any of their talking heads (either by name or affiliation) until the end credits. While that choice reinforces one of the movie's subthemes the primacy of ideas over personality it also stymies our natural desire to know whose words we're hearing, particularly in the case of the more animated, obviously eccentric speakers. The biggest misstep, though, is a recurring narrative thread that casts Marlee Matlin as a professional photographer with a lingering resentment toward men. At first, this interstitial programming is dramatic symbolism at its most effective, with Matlin's character navigating a world whose physical reality changes according to her attitude. But the attempt to teach by example gets sillier and sillier, its continuum-disrupting squiggles eventually giving way to computer-animated brain cells (complete with cute little faces) who cavort in lusty imitation of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video. If there's a way to bring the mystery of brain chemistry to the masses, this ain't it.
Still, the movie's hunger for knowledge more than carries the day. One of the experts interviewed sums up the film's outlook when he says that greeting the universe with anything less than wonder would put him "three-quarters of the way to being dead." In that spirit of open-mindedness, I'll optimistically proclaim that What the #$*! Do We Know!? is two-thirds of the way to being great.