|Dr. Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) works with a brilliant grad student who cracks under pressure. (Matthew margolin)|
"Dark Matter" is partly a victim of circumstances - but only partly. Based on the 1991 shootings at the University of Iowa, in which a Chinese graduate student named Gang Lu killed five people before turning the gun on himself, the movie appeared at the 2007 Sundance film festival only to be shelved in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre three months later.
Even before that tragedy, though, the film came across as an unsuccessful mix of drama and social warning. Post-Virginia Tech, "Dark Matter" seems merely naïve.
Written by Billy Shebar and directed by Chen Shi-zheng - an internationally known theater and opera director making his feature film debut - the movie introduces Li Xing (Liu Ye), a brilliant graduate student in cosmology who arrives at a US university from Beijing wide-eyed at the prospect of working with the renowned Dr. Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn). "Call me Jake," insists the aggressively affable professor, refusing to understand that his student only feels comfortable with formality.
That disconnect between the cultures is the movie's real subject, and it's an interesting and rarely addressed one. As he works feverishly to prove that 90 percent of the universe is made up of invisible "dark matter," Li Xing struggles to make himself visible in the strange new world of America. The film has a nicely jaundiced eye toward the hermetically sealed lives of Asian graduate students, who show up at Bible study groups for the free food and dream about marrying blondes and winning Nobels.
The hero's mistake is to assume hard work will be rewarded, not factoring in the egotism and bloody competition of academia. Quinn makes the professor a hateful but believable figure under his New Age beard, riding on his students' breakthroughs and making sure no one gets more attention than he does. As Li's chief rival, Lloyd Suh brims with the smugness of a born player.
Why Meryl Streep is here, though, I'm not quite sure. She plays a wealthy local supporter of Asian culture, and she takes Li under her wing with a kindness that's as genuine as it is condescending. The role's smaller than the film's trailer implies; you can feel the actress pushing to make it emotionally bigger, but there's just not enough there to work with.
The final act of "Dark Matter" is grim but unconvincing, and the shortfall leaves an ugly, exploitive taste in your mouth. An aborted romance with a not-too-bright barista hasn't carried enough dramatic weight, and, anyway, Li has seemed too gentle up to now to go on the warpath. Of course the loners who reach for firearms on campuses are always later described as "the quiet type." It's a film's job to solve that mystery in a way that feels hard but honest. "Dark Matter" is the lite version, and that's doing no one any favors.