Much Ado About Nothing

Stiff acting and sparse dialogue won't lift empty narrative out of its own navel

Redbud_Day33 (342 of 238).CR2Talk about lousy timing. On the heels of his triumphant, Oscar-winning Argo, Ben Affleck now has the bad luck to have to suffer through the postponed release of To the Wonder, a lethally boring and relentlessly inert disaster by the pretentious writer-director Terrence Malick that he probably considered unreleasable. It was Mr. Affleck himself who, at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival press conference for Argo, warned the assembled critics and journalists “If you thought The Tree of Life was slow, wait till you see this one.” Plotless and almost mute, To the Wonder is the kind of fiasco that keeps film-festival programmers salivating and discriminating audiences stampeding toward the exit doors. It’s a simpering yawn that makes The Tree of Life seem like an action thriller with Bruce Willis. It is about … nothing.

Cut from the same maddening bolt of existential fabric as its predecessor, this is the kind of exercise in paralyzing tedium that might appeal to people who love to watch grass grow and cumulus clouds gather in slow motion and do not expect anything as old-fashioned as a character-driven narrative featuring such outré values as acting, logic or the novelty of real people saying real things to each other in real time. Instead, they say … nothing. Mr. Affleck plays The Man, a wimpy American, terrified of emotional commitment, who meanders aimlessly around Paris for reasons that are never explained, meets a vague and pensive European girl who can’t act (Ukrainian-born Olga Kurylenko), and drags her and her 10-year-old daughter back to Oklahoma, where everyone ends up catatonic.

No names are ever mentioned, although in the end credits they are listed as Marina and Neil. The obscure title, explained in French, is the name of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, which the lovers visit, musically oppressed into silence by the prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal. Mr. Affleck is, I think, some sort of environmental engineer for a mining company (for character development, director Malick shows him wandering over slag heaps and confronting angry citizens who blame him for the lead contaminants in their drinking water). Too afraid of marriage to propose, The Man spends long silences staring out of the window of an empty farmhouse devoid of furniture into brown wheat fields while The Woman wanders around shopping for appliances and doing the laundry. Eventually she turns for spiritual solace to a Catholic priest having a crisis of faith (Javier Bardem, of all people), who understandably feels just as much a misfit in Oklahoma as she does, and they talk about … nothing. Meanwhile, The Man reunites briefly with an old girlfriend (a criminally wasted Rachel McAdams) who mysteriously disappears from the movie after 10 minutes. Some people have all the luck.

You can count the lines of dialogue on one hand, except for one long, ridiculous monologue, spoken entirely in Italian by a tangential character, a friend who pops up out of nowhere to convince The Woman to return to France. With no explanation, she returns and they reluctantly wed in time for the ending, which shows … nothing. Real conversation is replaced by cornball voice-overs in English, French and Spanish (“You brought me out of the shadows,” “You showed me eternal light”). If they climb the stairs, a voice says, “We climbed the stairs.” You hope the movie will perk up. No luck. Instead of picking up the pace by telling a story with a coherent narrative, a voice on Mr. Malick’s soundtrack drones, “Love made us one. I in you. You in me.” The child takes to The Man, but instead of showing how they bond, The Woman’s voice says: “After school you took her to swim. Taught her the names of wildflowers,” followed by close-ups of ragweed. When her visa finally expires and The Man still hasn’t asked her to stay on as his wife, The Woman realizes this empty experience has taught her … nothing. At last she packs up and goes back to Paris, and all you can do is wonder why it took her so long.

For plot, that just about does it. For schematic technique, Mr. Malick avoids shooting scenes that threaten to further the story along, substituting long stretches of improvisation and then editing out the dialogue. This leaves the actors to fend for themselves, a talent at which nobody in the film excels. Reportedly the only preparation Mr. Malick assigned them was to read plenty of Dostoyevsky. The direction seems to consist of “Keep your mouths shut and look miserable.” Mr. Affleck, who knows more about how to please an audience than Mr. Malick, looks just great, but Argo proved that his strength as a director exceeds his appeal as an actor with limited range. In this film, he’s a stiff cipher—an emotionless zero. The movie is dreary and humorless, further weighted by the music of Berlioz and Shostakovich, but when I saw it, Mr. Bardem’s befuddled priest elicited gales of laughter. I admit the director’s trademark imagery is plangent, filling in “the wonder” in the title with herds of grazing buffalo, turtles swimming underwater and people planting geraniums, shot with hand-held cameras in natural light. No Tree of Life dinosaurs show up, but nothing else happens, either. Years seem to pass between scenes. To be honest, years seem to pass during scenes. At one point, just when two people appear on the verge of displaying something resembling emotion, the camera cuts to a prolonged shot of a fly crawling across a ceiling. What some critics praise as self-restraint, I call self-indulgent, signifying … nothing.

Terrence Malick’s reputation is based on the completion of four films in 40 years. Suddenly, in the past three years, he’s turned out three in a row. The cinematic equivalent of a glass of warm buttermilk, To the Wonder is one he should have burned.

rreed@observer.com

TO THE WONDER

Written Terrence Malick

Directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem

Running time: 112 mins.

0/4 Stars