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Review: Mushrooms are new superheroes in documentary ‘Fantastic Fungi’

By Robert Abele Los Angeles Times

“We are the wisdom of a billion years,” Brie Larson dreamily narrates over what is not a new Marvel epic but rather a documentary of epic proportions about what director Louie Schwartzberg hopes everyone comes to view as a genuinely earthly marvel: mushrooms.

His evangelical eco-doc even has a superhero-friendly title – “Fantastic Fungi” – and a message about saving the planet that stars mushrooms as capped crusaders and mycelium as the hidden power that helps create life and natural harmony all over the world.

Perhaps the only aspect of life Schwartzberg doesn’t include in broadening our view of this vegetal powerhouse is romance, but maybe he believed that Paul Thomas Anderson had that subject covered with the ending of “Phantom Thread.”

At the heart of “Fantastic Fungi” is the central scientific reality that what fungi have been doing for billions of years is creating the nutrient-rich soil that led to plants and, well, us. Mushrooms are the visible, edible result of the rejuvenation constantly at work in forests wherever dead things lie.

But underneath, the masses of wispy tendrils known as mycelium are nature’s internet: connecting trees and swapping nutrients in a vast network that, unlike our above-ground World Wide Web, regulates itself for the betterment of all living things.

Schwartzberg, with the aid of gorgeous time-lapse photography and mycophilic talking heads including Michael Pollan, Eugenia Bone and Andrew Weil, covers a lot of ground – pun intended – from mushrooms’ role in developing the human brain to their healing history (think penicillin).

And, of course, consciousness-altering properties, which have been shown to alleviate PTSD and depression. Johns Hopkins’ magic mushroom studies – featured in the film – have even led to the recent announcement of a new center there for psychedelic research.

Though the Academy Award-winning Larson’s spore-adic role playing as a mushroom narrator (“My kingdom was born from the heavens”) is often unintentionally funny, Schwartzberg’s on-camera mycologist headliner Paul Stamets is a charmingly eccentric guide.

He speaks to everything from how mushrooms cured his stuttering to new cultivation techniques. When the movie gets into his patented fungi (rid yourself of termites!), it edges a little too close to being a commercial.

But that’s a nitpick when the totality of “Fantastic Fungi” is so entertaining, informative and appealingly hopeful about the hard-working cure all for our ailing world lying beneath our feet.

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