Just before heading down to Florida last week I went to see Woody Allen's film "Midnight in Paris," and after returning to NYC, I went this afternoon to see Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life." Two more different films in such a brief interval are hard to imagine – but they actually had something very much in common: a commanding director's sensibility and eagerness to take on big questions about the nature of life.
Allen's film is a comic fantasy. Owen Wilson plays a modestly successful screenwriter who yearns for the literary life and is plugging away at a novel. Accompanying his fiancee and her parents to Paris, where future father-in-law, the right-wing industrialist, has business meetings, he suddenly finds himself engaged in time travel, turning up in Paris of the 1920s, where he becomes involved with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and — most significantly — Picasso's latest girlfriend. But there is a serious theme about the nature of artistic creation and human striving, as Wilson confronts facts about himself and his quest. I found it vastly entertaining – talky and witty in the way Woody Allen follows in all his films, and lots of fun. The entire thing is beautifully photographed, and the costumes and sets quite stunning.
Malick's is also a fantasy, but not comic in the least. Indeed, unlike Allen's purely linear plotting, Malick does not provide a real plot. Rather, focusing on the nature of life and its inevitable ups and downs, he takes us from the creation of the universe (in flashbacks) to the present and the immediately prior present, as a brooding middle-aged architect, played by Sean Penn, reflects on his childhood and his tortured relationship with his parents (dad is Brad Pitt) and his brothers. There is no chronological order here, just seemingly random jumping about. Penn is only briefly on-screen, and the film seems to center heavily about his memories of his father, who gets the lion's share of the screen time. There is little dialogue to help with the story, as is Malick's way through his series of taciturn films. The occasional voiceover narration is sometimes unintelligible, especially the lines delivered by the child actors who impersonate Penn and his siblings during the 1950s. The color photography is spectacular, the special effects are overwhelming, and the scene with the dinosaurs is something else, putting Jurassic Park to shame. I'm of two minds about this one. Either it is incoherent and pretentious or brilliant and profound. Perhaps a bit of both. There are certainly many individual scenes that are crushingly moving, and the actors seem to be giving Malick everything he asks for. Definitely worth thinking and pondering, but not for those with short attention spans, as it can at times move at a glacial pace. Lots of great classical music on the soundtrack, as well as some fine original contributions by Alexandre Desplat.