It’s unlikely that the year will witness an odder movie than “What the #$*! Do We Know!?,” a melange of scientific explication and New Age religiosity that gets, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, curioser and curioser as it goes along. Mixing interviews, animation, and a weird narrative involving a deaf photographer (played by Marlee Matlin) on a voyage of self-discovery, the picture is a rarefied teaching tool that will probably appeal, like some cult object, to those who already subscribe to the philosophy it espouses, but is likely to leave anybody else bewildered and slightly annoyed.
What the picture purports to do is to offer a very general explanation of the basic principles of quantum physics, which are then conjoined with observations of how they should color one’s view of life and lead to a change of attitude and behavior. It’s all very fuzzy and indistinct as presented by a battery of interviewees–scientists, philosophers, theologians, physicians and mystics–but the enthusiasm and intensity of some of the commentators will be at least sporadically amusing to the uninitiated. Less successful is the effort to dramatize the process of conversion to the makers’ New Age viewpoint in Matlin’s Amanda, a deeply unhappy woman who comes to perceive the possibility of an alternate lifestyle by exposure to a flighty but loving roommate and immersion in an assignment she initially resists–taking pictures at a wedding celebration. There, under the influence of alcohol, she watches as the guests exhibit their emotions, which are shown as gelatinous creatures that look rather like Al Capp’s schmoos. Amanda is supposed to embody the ability to change your life for the better by embracing an eastern philosophy grounded in the sort of paradoxical premises that quantum physics teaches, but though she achieves some sort of spiritual enlightenment at the close, it’s never made clear in what it consists. Even worse, the portrayal of her progress through the mechanism of a Polish wedding in which stereotypes abound may strike you as unfortunate.
The acting in the picture is pretty rudimentary, with Matlin coming across as shrill (the only other recognizable person in the cast is Barry Primus, in a small role as her boss), and the interview subjects vary considerably in their effect (the most effective is probably Fred Allen Wolf, whose elfin jocularity is very winning). But for a low-budget production, it looks quite good, with the animation in particular significantly better than one might expect. Presumably many of the filmmakers donated their talents out of belief rather than the profit motive.
But the picture is unlikely to prove much of a recruitment tool; for all its earnest good intentions, “What the #S*! Do We Know!?” will serve mostly as a communal experience for those already steeped in the theories it espouses, who will doubtlessly attend it in big numbers. Others watching it may find themselves outsiders–like atheists in an audience of committed believers at a screening of “The Passion of the Christ.” And not just outsiders–bored outsiders.