Ambitious and Convoluted

Brad Pitt in a scene from Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011)

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Inside every fat person is a skinny person wanting to get out–so goes the old adage/joke/sizist quip. Something like that applies to Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life: within every ambitiously convoluted movie there’s a great movie wanting to break free.

The Tree of Life is an impressionistic film about an archetypal suburban family living in mid-twentieth century Texas. How best to relate their fleeting joys, uncomfortable discoveries and life-altering disappointments? From the beginning, of course–with the big bang, the advent of micro-cellular life forms and prehistoric creatures romping through the flora. Later we’re transported to, if not heaven exactly, then a place that will pass for it: a misty, Hallmark-style realm in which we wander, wide-eyed and innocent, alongside the dearly departed.

The Tree of Life is marked by sweeping cinematic means, an operatic score and whispered bits of proselytizing. I’m not altogether averse to Malick’s spectacle–the boy in me thrilled to the scenes featuring the CGI dinosaurs. Nor am I resistant to spiritualist corn. But Malick is his own worst enemy: pretentious, portentous and in need of a merciless editor.

At the center of The Tree of Life is a beyond sublime evocation of middle-class American life and, especially, boy-hood. The scenes of stressful family dinners, lazy summer afternoons and frogs sent soaring into space are deftly handled, utterly poetic and true to the core. Brad Pitt effectively disappears into the role of a meat-and-potatoes disciplinarian and Jessica Chastain is, as cinematic eye candy, ethereal and fetching.

But Sean Penn? His distinctive features, at once rubbery and sharp, are wasted in a role that’s featured in the 45 minutes or so of the movie that should have ended up on the cutting room floor–which, alas, would include the scenes featuring those really cool dinosaurs.

Finer minds than mine have mooted the film’s go-for-broke bloat and come away liking the thing anyway. I’ll damn The Tree of Life with faint praise:  Twelve bucks and two hours weren’t completely ill-spent. But sometimes one would rather hunker down on the sofa and watch an episode of Lost.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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