The most frustrating thing about the oft eye-roll inducing The Tree of Life is that you can see the good movie inside of it. It’s about 40 minutes of the 138 minute runtime, and would work well as a short on its own. However, what we have around it is a pretentious bore. In fact, out of those good 40 minutes, I could really only enjoy about 15 of them–because I was still so turned off from the first half hour. This first half hour (that’s an estimation, it felt like years of my life–it also could have been 5 minutes) is a self-satisfied director looking down at his audience, and plays like a collegiate sophomore’s film project with a multi-million dollar budget.
The Tree of Life is my first experience with writer/director Terrence Malick–and it was not a start on the right foot, in fact it makes me hesitant to try any of his other films. To his credit, he gets some wonderful performances out of the child actors–and his adult stars, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain have a few good moments with the sketches of the characters they are given. There’s just not much to say about Sean Penn, the other above-the-title star, who barely registers. Malick’s The Tree of Life plays like the worst kind of ego project—most recently reminiscent of Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. Malick clearly aspires to say big things, and then doesn’t. There are some beautiful small themes, and intimate character studies, but they are all glossed over with a giant axe. Malick’s complete lack of restraint undermines every talent he clearly possesses.
I can’t remember the last time I felt this confused about critical/award response. While I didn’t care for Black Swan or Winter’s Bone last season, I generally understood what people saw in them, I just didn’t agree. I honestly don’t know how to registers as good except in a one-up-manship contest of mental masturbation. I hope I don’t end up this ledge by myself, but I’m prepared for it. Though, clearly I’m not the only one–my film companion hated it just as much as I did and resulted in laughing all the way to the subway over what we just saw. The opening weekend art house crowd (the ones who sell out every performance on all 4 screens, and line up an hour before and have loud conversations about underrated auteurs of modern cinema) were ready to love this. I have never seen so many walk-outs on a movie, since, well, Across the Universe.