Monday, April 8, 2013

Terrence Malick's TO THE WONDER opens; the "spiritual" among us may ooh and aah

In the spirit of our late and much lamented comrade Roger Ebert (whom yours truly only learned to appreciate later in Ebert's career, once that TV show had been laid to rest), I am going to approach TO THE WONDER, the new movie from Terrence Malick, in the manner in which I believe Ebert often did: by trying first to determine what the movie-maker was attempting to achieve with the film. I tend to do that automatically; it's always been part of my approach to viewing a film. I don't read the press material before seeing a movie because I find that this obfuscates as often as it makes clear, and sometimes it greatly effects what one imagines that one is seeing. When you are told what something means in advance, it's doubly difficult to un-understand it. So the tabula rasa is by far a better option.

Mr. Malick, shown at left, begins To the Wonder in Paris (and not the dark, dank Paris of the recently reviewed Simon Killer) with its stars, Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, taking us on a little travelog to some of the most beautiful places in and about France. The two play characters who are clearly in love, and Kurylenko looks soft and vulnerable, while Affleck has seldom seemed as relaxed or sexy. The two hold hands. They gambol. They cuddle. They neck. And there never seem to be any other people around them -- even at some of the most beautiful and, one-would-think, touristy spots. Well, they're in love, and doesn't love often make you feel as though there is nobody else in the world except you and your beloved. OK: let's agree to buy that interpretation.

This sort of smooch fest continues for maybe ten or twelve minutes, at which point, I suspect many viewers are going to say, OK: We get it. We then leave, along with the two lovebirds and her just pre-teen daughter for the plains of the Southwest -- which I suspect Mr. Malick thinks compares in beauty to the wonders of France. To each his own, but this looked looked more like a wasteland to me. (Coincidentally, Affleck's character appears to have some sort of job involving toxic waste and talking to citizens about their experiences with it. But we never learn more than this.)

On these southwestern plains, we get a lot more of Kurylenko gamboling, prancing, dancing and flitting -- and verbalizing her innermost thoughts. Here's one: "What is this love that loves us, that comes from nowhere, from all around?" Or maybe that popped out the innermost thoughts of a priest who's lost his faith -- an enormous waste of that fine actor Javier Bardem, below. (Wouldn't you say that any filmmaker who can render Bardem utterly non-specific and boring is in the wrong business?)

It doesn't really matter who says what in this film because all the verbiage is so dreadful. I won't use the word cliché because the narration never rises to even that level. Instead it more often sounds like the twaddle being recited by a three-year-old who has come to language skills only haltingly. At one point we're inundated with the word "love" spoken over and over until we're ready to talk back to the screen.

There is no plot to this mess -- only "situations." They're in love. They out of it. She and her daughter leave. He gets involved with a blond, played by Rachel McAdams (shown above and below, with Affleck), who is used here ever more poorly than is Bardem. She, too, is shown dancing, swaying, and running through the fields. And that's it for her. About that priest and his crisis of faith: Normally I'd welcome any movie that questions organized religion. But this one's questions are so standard and obvious, it's like the religious version of paint-by-numbers.

And who are these people? They have all this interior life, replete with imbecilic voice-over nonsense that they share with us while gamboling (Kurylenko) or getting down and solemn (Bardem), but they have zero exterior lives. No friends, no co-workers, no relatives, no nuttin'! Malick seems to have completely lost track of how to tell a story or create a character (ever heard of dialog, Mister?). And there aren't even --for Tree of Life lovers -- any dinosaurs. There are bison (two photos up), which is a helpful distraction, though I fear it leads to more dancing and prancing. (And not by the bison, which, in the manner of the musical Hair and its horses, would have been fun.)

Aside from smiling maybe once, Mr Affleck manages a single dour expression throughout almost the entire film: as though he is kind of miffed about something, perhaps that he signed on to this movie. Kurylenko grows nuttier until she's certifiable. If you are generous, you might call the film a meditation on existence, life, god and love. But there is so little to be learned or gained from its paltry array of "ideas" on verbal parade and even less from its "pretty" visuals, which, these days are a dime a dozen. And, yes, the movie ends with yet more prancing.

Who is the audience for this film, aside from absolute die-hard Malick fans?  I would guess, given its take-down of organized religion, together with its attempt at creating god out of twaddle and prance, it will appeal most to those people who fancy themselves spiritual -- as in "I'm a very 'spiritual' person." To which I usually reply, "Honey: That's for someone else to say -- not for you to say about yourself." (In my experience, people who imagine themselves very spiritual are often just raging narcissists.)

So, if Tree of Life did not cure you of Terrence Malick, To the Wonder surely will. It is perhaps the most offensive film I have ever had to sit through. No, it's not "dirty" or full of foul language or overt sexuality or any of the usual suspects. But it is full of itself -- and irredeemably stupid. Even for those of us who liked or loved Malick's earlier work, it is time to stop pretending and call a spade a spade. To do any less is to become, in a word, an enabler.

The movie, from Magnolia Pictures and running a seems-like-twice-as-long-as 112 minutes, opens this Friday, April 12, in 16 cities and then expands to another 24 next Friday, and from there outward until most of the USA is covered. You can find all currently scheduled playdates by clicking here.

No comments: