“Dopamine,” a humorless, insufferable computer-geek romance, takes its name from the chemical that floods the brain during moments of pleasure. It’s the most inappropriately titled movie since “Deep Impact.” Insular, self-important and patently ridiculous, this digital video feature is a pleasure vacuum.
A product of the Sundance Institute, which helps budding filmmakers hone their cinematic musings into features, “Dopamine” bears all the hallmarks of a movie that’s been developed to death. With the institute’s proud guidance, director Mark Decena and his co-writer, Timothy Breitbach, have taken a teensy-weensy idea and padded it with more filler than a $3 crabcake. Their years of writing, workshopping and rewriting have produced a wan, 84-minute feature that feels twice as long.
The premise: Can love really exist at a time when science can explain the way hormones, pheromones and brain chemistry interact to produce everything from sexual attraction to the nesting instinct and the seven-year itch?
Well, sure it can, because most people don’t pay attention to that stuff. But Decena and Breitbach have created a hero who’s obsessed with it: Rand (John Livingston), a Bay Area programmer who creates an artificially intelligent cartoon bird that’s geared to respond to human emotion like a pet.
Of course there’s a lame back story that explains Rand’s obsession with the science of emotion: His mother is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, and she no longer recognizes her son or her husband of 30-plus years. In his bitterness, Rand’s father has become convinced that the love he shared with his wife was merely chemical, and he’s drilled that mentality into his son.
And of course Rand’s mind-set will be tested by a woman, Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd), whom we first see painting, signifying what a perfect love interest she is. She tries to flirt with Rand at a bar, but Rand clams up and she goes off with his sexually aggressive partner, Winston (Bruno Campos), for an unsatisfying one-night stand.
But never fear. Sarah teaches at the kindergarten where Rand, Winston and their third partner Johnson (Rueben Grundy) have been ordered to product-test their digital pet, giving Rand plenty more chances to woo her with his moroseness. While Lloyd has some winning moments as Sarah, Livingston (the brother of the far more talented Ron Livingston) ties himself into knots trying to look tormented.
Although nothing signifies it as a period piece, “Dopamine” clearly takes place when the dot-com bubble was still inflating: People get paid to mess around on their computers all day, and nobody seems to worry about money or even whether their product ever makes it to market. They live in a self-contained world untouched by war, terrorism or economic uncertainty, making them seem all the more smug and inconsequential.
What’s worse, there’s no authenticity: Decena and Breitbach, who allegedly based the movie on their own lives, have no clue how to depict geek culture. When Rand, Winston and Johnson (what names!) chat in the office, it’s not about computer code but about ideas, feelings and personality differences. Not only that, they’re scrubbed, shaven and well-dressed, with cool haircuts and perfect cheekbones and jawlines. They look nothing like struggling programmers and everything like what they are — struggling actors.
And of course they’re totally self-obsessed and take their problems super-seriously. It’s one thing for a movie to take you back to the ’90s and introduce you to jejune, oblivious people; it’s another thing for the filmmakers be just as oblivious to how thin and silly their characters are.