For the last twelve months the film world rallied behind one unifying cause: seeing Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of life” into a major film festival. Last year’s failure to complete the film in time was deemed a disappointment by many and its absence, first from Cannes and then from Venice, was difficult to swallow. And yet, even though I was myself disappointed, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of skepticism. An American filmmaker making a meditative film can be a hit-and-miss thing. The only successful such film (besides movies made by Paul Thomas Anderson, on a different level), and one that bears a strange resemblance to “Tree,” was Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Skepticism because I never quite digested the new-agey title of this movie. And what does tree of life really mean? Does such a thing exist, and if one were to make a movie called this way, what would they put in it?
Skepticism because Terrence Malick only makes a movie every eight years or so (if you average out the gaps). That’s not a career, that’s a pastime. And, finally, skepticism at hearing all the rumors during the film’s premiere on Monday in Cannes. Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, who have the lead roles were on hand, as well as the film’s producers, but until the very last step was ascended during the red carpet premiere the director hadn’t shown up and the words on everyone’s lips were, “will Malick be at his own movie’s premiere?” He was a no-show, it turns out. Luc Besson, who attended the premiere, chuckled at a reporter’s question, answering that, “Malick is shy, very shy. He is in Cannes, but he’s with us in spirit.” What does this mean? Is Malick so timid that he has a God complex?
If only the movie were good. If, towering over this fog of tittle-tattle and explanations “Tree of Life” were the movie of the year, then all this would be just well. It’s not. As I sat through the two-plus hours that this movie lasts, instead of pondering the meaning of life or try to follow the non-existent narrative I thought about a novel I’ve been meaning to write, wondered whether I should check my iPhone for new emails and would that bother anyone in the theatre, that I was glad I hadn’t purchased any popcorn, and that “Tree” reminded of Rob Reiner’s movie “Stand by me” (1986). Finally, I realized that a lot of the buzz from the last twelve months had been about the filmmaker’s shyness, his pathological discretion, and not so much about the movie itself. And that tends to make me suspicious.
“Tree of life,” with its simple-minded take on adolescent angst is a sophomoric copy-and-paste of Antonioni (Sean Penn walking dreamily along the sand dunes), Kubrick (Nature Channel- and sci-fi-style footage) and the same aforementioned Rob Reiner movie.
It is also one of those rare movies given ungodly amounts of hype (mostly abroad, however) which have no redeemable value. From the constantly moving camera work (watching “Tree” gives you the same perspective on things as a fly who’s taken too many dives in a beer mug), to the glib, episodic bursts of dialogue spoken mostly in whispered tones (you can tell Malick was probably a fan of those old Calvin Klein commercials), and a stunning (stunningly long and stunningly superfluous) twenty minute-long nature montage—alternately showing asteroids, coral reefs, spermatozoa and other things that looked like spermatozoa—which steamrolled through an already flat narrative, Malick has not only fallen into every trap, but he’s cheerfully devised new ones, too.
But all is not lost for “Tree of life.” Mr. Malick is lucky to have two terrific actors, Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, putting their weight behind the movie as it is being rolled out in theatres this month. And there still remains twenty-four hours before the Cannes jury decides on a winner. Although winning a Palme has never been a forerunner of B.O success for American movies, it certainly won’t hurt “Tree of life” in the long run.