Friday, April 12, 2013

Woefully Thin: To The Wonder



This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Coming out of the latest Terence Malick film, I realized it may be the only Malick movie thus far that can be perfectly summed up in a mere tweet's worth of words:

To the Wonder is two hours of a manic pixie girl twirling around with diaphanous scarves in her hands. Also: Fields of wheat.

I saw the film on April Fools' Day, and being that Malick has normally waited many years between movies, and those he has released of late have been epically long, I was sure this 114-minute event was just an elaborate April Fools prank. Alas, as laughable as the movie was at the time, it's no joke.

Malick had mesmerized me in the past, and for a while, he was one of my favorite directors. I can still watch Badlands and Days of Heaven any time they're on, and never get bored. When I saw The Thin Red Line, (at the Coronet, may it rest in peace), I was completely hooked, and would have gladly sat through three more hours of it.

But when The New World came out, I felt him falter. He was treading familiar ground--oh, those fields of wheat!--but all that beauty was beginning to feel hollow.

I'm not a huge fan of his last film, The Tree of Life, but I did feel like he was at least mixing in some new things with his usual meditations on the human condition. Instead of wheat, we got dinosaurs.

But To the Wonder is like a parody of Malick, and has all the emotional depth of your average perfume commercial.

Behind all the gauzy scarves and fields of wheat is a woefully thin story:

Neil (Ben Affleck) and Mariana (Olga Kurylenko) are in love. Neil is American, and Marina is French. She has a pre-teen daughter named Tatiana. They roam around France. They move to Oklahoma. Neil's job involves gathering test tubes of water and soil samples. Marina is...French.

Neil won't marry her. She moves back to France. Neil reconnects with a former flame, Jane, (Rachel McAdams), who is blonde, owns a ranch, and is a tad religious. Marina writes and tells Neil she's lonely and wants to come back. He agrees, breaks it with the blonde, and marries Marina.

Things don't work out.

Oh, and there's a Catholic priest, (Javier Bardem), who wanders around, visiting poor parishioners in their homes, though rarely getting up the nerve to actually knock on their doors and go inside. He wrestles with his faith.

There is hardly any dialogue in the movie, and poor Ben Affleck has, maybe, six lines in the whole thing. Instead, the Marina character, in voiceover, and in French, does the majority of the speaking. It includes lines like, "What is this love that loves us?," and, "Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt," lines that, because they are spoken in French, sound a lot more poetic than the actually are.

I can understand placing undeveloped characters into a love story. By doing so, the characters represent something bigger than their story. They represent: Love, with a capital L.

And yes, Ben Affleck's woefully silent and stilted Man is likely very much like an ex-boyfriend many have in their back pocket. But the Woman. The twirling Woman---god how she constantly twirls, through fields of wheat, across muddy shores, down the aisles of Oklahoma supermarkets--is not a woman any sane person would want to know, let alone be.

Running around in grassy plains during the magic hour is not a relationship. It's beautiful backdrop. The Malick of Days of Heaven knew this. To the Wonder is the first of his films to be fully set in modern times, and perhaps that's part of the problem. Characters in his other films had the weight of history backing them. But To the Wonder is filled with modern ciphers.

It goes without saying that the movie is gorgeous. It's not like Malick is suddenly going to NOT make fields of wheat look amazing. And the people in it are gorgeous too. But you can't fall in true love with a person who is simply beautiful, and nothing else. And the same holds true for movies.

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