'The Tree of Life'

"No, son, this movie's not really about much."

*1/2 (out of four)

How to summarize a plot when there isn't one? In a nutshell, what you'll see in "The Tree of Life" is two 1950s parents (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain), their three young sons and one of the boys as an adult (Sean Penn) who barely speaks and wanders around in the middle of nowhere like a slowed-down version of Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" video. Also: Many, many shots of plants, the sky, space and other non-human landscapes. And dinosaurs.

The buzz: One of the most overrated filmmakers ever, redundant writer-director Terrence Malick ("Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line," "The New World") excels in depicting windy days and animals looking at things. His weaknesses are elements like story, character, an over-reliance on voiceover, lack of pacing and his ultra-pretentious fondness for favoring pretty visuals over any, you know, point. "The Tree of Life," which did just win the top prize at Cannes, was largely made using improvisation and attempts to capture moments. That's another way of saying there wasn't an established plotline other than the rough (and far from novel) notion of parents shaping their kids and the universe being created. Yeah.

The verdict: Ambition doesn't automatically equal achievement, and non-commercial doesn't necessarily mean better. The ridiculously inefficient "The Tree of Life" is 100 percent beautiful and 80-90 percent B.S., as Malick leans on nice cinematography to generalize about life's brightest and darkest elements with all the precision of a Coldplay song. The film's few poignant moments of childhood reflection don't correspond to anything in the present, so those evocative images disintegrate behind pretty but useless depictions of everything from the origins of life to people standing around in the afterlife. (Also, suggesting dinosaurs used to inhabit the area we live isn't profound.) This boring, frustrating movie's not a rumination on kids learning about the world's contradictions and tragedies; it's a hollow, incoherent display of visuals that never seems like an actual representation of an adult's memories of youth (unless you only look back on one very brief period of your life, and not even the one in which your sibling died). Rather than becoming transcendent, whispered prayers of "We cry to you...My soul..." in voiceover are just substitutions for writing characters and dialogue---it's Malick's way of making postcards with nothing on them but a signature. Only this guy could make a self-important riff on human insignificance; instead of having your mind blown, you'll sit there thinking, "Oh, great, another shot of a tree."

Did you know? After one of his boys asks to have a friend over, Mr. O'Brien (Pitt) replies, "Is your family not good enough for you?" OK, dad, I'll take that as "maybe tomorrow."

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mpais@tribune.com