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DOPAMINE (director/writer: Mark Decena; screenwriter: Timothy Breitbach; cinematographer: Robert Humphreys; editor: Jessica Congdon; music: Eric Holland; cast: John Livingston (Rand), Sabrina Lloyd (Sarah), Bruno Campos (Winston), Reuben Grundy (Johnson), Kathleen Antonia (Tammy), Nicole Wilder (Machiko), William Windom (Rand’s father); Runtime: 79; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Debbie Brubaker/Tad Fettig; Samuel Goldwyn Company; 2003)
“Never seems to say something important about love that it tries desperately to get to.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Neophyte director and co-scripter Mark Decena’s Dopamine is a pleasant comedy-romancer about New Age types, but it never feels wholly human and never seems to say something important about love that it tries desperately to get to. It is supposedly the first film to work its way through the Sundance Institute support system, from screenplay workshop to theatrical distribution. It feels weighed down by committee input and comes to screen as a mostly artificial coy relationship drama set in the heyday of the high-tech community of San Francisco. But there are many things to recommend it other than the weak script and poorly accomplished sense of drama and all its schematic plot lines, such as the fresh premise which suggests relationships are not only hormonal but are programmed. There’s also the good chemistry relationship between the two leads, played by John Livingston as a secretive computer geek and Sabrina Lloyd as a vulnerable young woman with a haunting secret.

A trio of oddlot computer designers Rand (Livingston), Winston (Campos), and Johnson (Grundy) have worked long hours for nothing the last few years on an artificial-intelligence program. Programmer Rand has developed Koy Koy, a big-eyed A.I. simulated bird that responds to voice recognition if done affectionately, a product aimed at the children’s market. For those feeling lost Koy Koy is programmed to be helpful. Its software is designed to substitute for a real pet and give the child someone who is always there no matter what. Since Koy Koy was programmed by the questioning Rand, he takes on his characteristics of shyness, fear of relationships, and the attitude of how temporary and unsure love is. The serious young man is deeply troubled that his mother and father have lost the love they once had due to mom’s Alzheimer’s. Dad acts as mentor to junior and feeds him on a heavy dosage of cynical responses to any lasting romantic notions that he might think possible. Love according to dad is merely pharmaceutically induced.

Venture capital investors are interested in the software, but first insist on test research by their target market of selected pre-schoolers. Rand is upset that inexperienced youngsters must decide the fate of their product and goes to a bar to unwind with Winston. After Rand makes eye contact with an attractive woman at the bar named Sarah (Lloyd), his aggressive friend leaves with her. But as horny as Sarah is to get laid that night, she gets turned off by the pompous dude and splits in the middle of screwing. It also turns out that she’s the kindergarten teacher of the class used to test Koy Koy. So when Rand spends serious time in her classroom an awkward romance begins, filled with idle chatter about true love versus impermanent hormonal love. In the background there are trendy coffee shops that line San Francisco, as well as the more traditional shot of a fog-covered Golden Gate amidst the lit evening skyline. Of visual curiosity are two computer animations, one of the interactive Koy Koy cutely chirping away and the even the more interesting one showing the hormonal pyrotechnics set off when Rand smells Sarah’s hair. It sets off an immediate chemical reaction indicating that he’s attracted to her, as her molecules interact with his and that reaction produces the pleasure chemical dopamine.

The filmmaker never went beyond the superficial as the story itself winds down as a conventional and not too interesting love story, one that too easily forgets about all its scientific theories it broached for almost the entire film. In its hip stylish look and superficiality of characters, rather than in its theme, it reminded me most of the 1998 Aronofsky film “Pi.” It’s also aimed at an intellectual audience and tempts them with some mind-bending samplers, but in the end lets down its intellectual audience by making its characters so neurotic and intellectually afraid that they seem more ordinary than intellectual.

REVIEWED ON 12/27/2003 GRADE: B –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”