Nature vs. Nurture. Love vs. Lust. Pure physiology vs. the spiritual and intangible feelings of the soul. These are the ancient and unending questions of romance and attraction that form the very heart of director Mark Decena’s poignant and penetrating romantic comedy “Dopamine.”
Rand (John Livingston) may as well be Data from “Star Trek.” Burdened with way, WAY too much knowledge about the chemical and physiological aspects of love and lust thanks to a father who became obsessed with the subject following the onset of his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, Rand is a wet blanket cynic when it comes to matters of the heart. For Rand, a designer of a painfully cute computerized artificial intelligence life form pet named Koy Koy, love is little more than the body’s release of the euphoria-inducing chemical Dopamine. As far as Rand is concerned, love inevitably ends when the body’s Dopamine spigot squeaks shut.
Up until now, he’s unwittingly tested his thesis like any good scientist in a number of failed romances. He even rationalizes his magnetic attraction to Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd), a no-nonsense brunette beauty he spots at a bar one evening when he’s out with his business partners Winston (Bruno Campos) and Johnson (Rueben Grundy), to just that sort of neurochemical chicanery. This helps ease the sting when Sarah goes home with Winston.
Purely chemical or not, his heart skips a beat or two when the next day, Rand, Winston and Johnson show up at a nearby nursery school to field test their computerized creation…only to discover that Sarah is one of the teachers at the school.
As Rand and Sarah’s tenuous relationship takes halting steps through the twin minefields of his fatalistic pessimism and the void surrounding a mysterious event in Sarah’s past, his theory faces its biggest test of all. For perhaps the first time in his life, the head-over-heels programmer desperately hopes proves that the results prove his sterile theory to be wrong.
For all its blustering about the chemical underpinnings of love, “Dopamine,” perhaps inevitably comes down squarely in the camp of irrational romance over science. Knowing this, however, in no way takes away from the heartfelt exploration of the issue Rand makes. Extraordinarily well written and acted, this is one of the smartest and most uniquely creative romantic comedies to emerge in quite some time. Yeah, sure, it’s a little…okay, a lot on the sappy side and unapologetically manipulative, but only those hard-bitten cynics who make even Rand look like a lovesick Barney will have a beef with this.
Of slightly more concern is the film’s tendency to lose its focus and drift in the middle. A stunted subplot in which Rand sets out to create a mate for Koy Koy using the lessons he’s supposedly learning from his experiences with Sarah, while a clever idea, never really goes anywhere. The only purpose it really serves is to add to the film’s “Aww!” factor amongst female viewers who will, overall, like this film even more than the guys. Eventually, however, the film thankfully regains its traction and moves on.
Would that we could extract the essence of this utterly enjoyable film and distill its creativity, intelligence and originality into a serum which we could then inject into all the tapped-out Hollywood screenwriters and directors out there. Because once the viewer has been exposed to a refreshing and addictive drug like “Dopamine,” nothing else will satisfy.