*1/2 (out of four)
If “To the Wonder” were a stand-up routine, it’d go something like this: “Didja ever notice how guys are always walking around with their hands in their pockets, saying and expressing nothing? And women are always twirling and letting their emotions get the best of them? Am I right, people?”
Because “To the Wonder” comes from Terrence Malick (“The Tree of Life”), the film communicates this tragic gender gap through minimal dialogue. Hey, why show a man teaching his girlfriend’s daughter the names of wildflowers and calling her “daughter” when you can just have someone say that happened in voiceover?
Not surprisingly, “To the Wonder” is indeed a voiceover party, and everyone (whose characters’ names are never spoken) is invited: Neil (Ben Affleck) apparently attracts gorgeous women purely on the sensation of his stubble, and accomplishes nothing at his job, which requires him just to stroll and ask people if they’re having trouble with their property. Marina (Olga Kurylenko of “Oblivion”) moves with her daughter from France to America to be with Neil, but doesn’t discuss her expiring visa until it’s too late. (That made sense in the naïve, collegiate delirium of “Like Crazy,” but in “Wonder” these people should know better.) Rachel McAdams plays Jane, who shares Marina’s fondness for frolicking and spinning (Neil definitely has a type) and steps in when Neil allows Marina, this supposed love of his that went south for unaddressed reasons, to leave the country. Javier Bardem plays a priest who occasionally voices things like, “Thirsting. We thirst,” when he’s not grumbling about loneliness and sharing generic religious platitudes.
Malick incorporates fewer useless shots of the sun shining through the trees than usual (only three!) but, again, characters constantly mosey through tall grass and wind always blows to catch the ladies’ hair just so. Within minutes of the film’s opening, Neil and Marina wander in a small courtyard on the ocean and she says, “We climbed the steps to the wonder.” I mean, it’s a nice courtyard, but they don’t share much of a memory there. A wonder, yes, but the wonder? No way.
Maybe “To the Wonder” intends to meditate on physical attraction and the idea of love obscuring its absence, but Malick only writes feelings, not characters. He in particular gives his women no credit to think clearly at all. Jane tells Neil that she trusts him and that he makes her laugh when he literally has done and said nothing. People in love can be entertained by their partner just being themselves, but neither Jane nor we know Neil well enough for this to work on screen.
The filmmaker captures palpable tension that seeps into the relationships, but he also patronizes small-town America and observes only the beginning and end of love. The middle is what matters, but Malick would rather indulge his lousy poetry like Marina saying, “What is this love that loves us? That comes from nowhere. From all around. The sky. You, cloud. You love me, too.”
That line would get laughed out of a high school classroom. Why should Malick get away with it?
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