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‘To the Wonder’: A sumptuous blunder

Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.

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  • ‘Mud’ review

    ‘To the Wonder’

    A visually entrancing, philosophically empty meditation (mostly in French) on our place in the scheme of things.

    C- STARS: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem.

    WRITER-DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick.

    RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes.

    RATING: R (sexuality, nudity).

There are three good reasons not to give characters in your movie proper names.

First, they’re too insignificant: You can get away with “security guard” or “convenience store clerk,” because they have only a few lines.

Second, they are Everyman or Everywoman, representing humanity so universally that they are all of us.

Third, they are so vaguely written that they don’t represent anyone at all: They’re arid abstractions, ideas vaguely clothed in flesh.

Writer-director Terrence Malick probably thinks “To the Wonder” belongs in category two. But it’s frustratingly planted in category three. It’s as if he took the last scene of the more satisfying “Tree of Life” – the one where Sean Penn wanders wordlessly by the seashore – and made an entire film in that mode.

It’s indisputably gorgeous: Emmanuel Lubezki, his “Tree of Life” cinematographer, turns rippling water and wind-tossed wheat and hulking bison into visual poetry. (All of Malick’s five previous features have been nominated for cinematography Oscars, except for “Badlands.” And “Wonder” will be, too.)

It’s philosophic: An Oklahoma priest (Javier Bardem) ponders his lack of faith, though he sees God all around, and a Parisian (Olga Kurylenko) constantly contemplates the nature of love. (She narrates in French, so most of the picture is subtitled. French is the dominant language, with a smattering of English and a vast quantity of unintelligible mumbling.)

But trying to hold onto any part of it is like trying to catch meringue in a baseball glove.

The Parisian dances and twirls through Paris and remote parts of France, accompanying her young daughter and a silent American (Ben Affleck) on his vacation: (The title refers to the castle at Mont Saint-Michel.) He turns out to be an engineer, whose job back home seems to be measuring pollution caused by an oil project and dealing with afflicted citizens.

He takes both mother and daughter back to Oklahoma. The mother twirls and dances and gabbles of love, until she and the engineer fight. Her daughter goes back to France. Then she goes back to France. The engineer begins a sullen affair with an old flame (Rachel McAdams.) They break off. The Frenchwoman comes back and twirls. She marries the engineer. They fight.

It all happens this baldly, without exposition or explanation. Affleck never speaks a long sentence we can understand. The most interesting person, the sensible little girl, gets shipped out once we feel connected to her. The others drift in and out like leaves summoned and dispelled by an indifferent breeze.

Could Malick be arguing that all of life is arbitrary? Then why show the priest’s requests to God and imply a reply is possible? Is Malick saying the source of love is unknowable, and seeking for it causes a schism? That’s twaddle. The movie in his head seems to have been put on the screen, but it’s his least accessible project ever.

McAdams and Kurylenko get to do a bit of acting, moving from joy to mournfulness, even if the sources of both remain unclear. Affleck has two expressions, a smirk and a scowl. Bardem never changes expression at all: Whatever he’s saying comes out with a dispassionate, hangdog glumness. Perhaps he watched the daily rushes once too often.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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