“To the Wonder,” Malick’s sixth film, is both the first he’s set entirely in the present day, and the first to focus primarily on a romantic relationship. But make no mistake: This has all the usual Malick touches, from striking visuals to a glacially slow pace to heavy reliance on voiceover. The film has a lot to recommend about it, including a couple of strong performances and gorgeous music and cinematography, which carry “To the Wonder” a very long way. What’s lacking, though, is any handle on these characters.
The plot is like “Blue Valentine,” if Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams had spent 90 percent of the movie not talking to each other. It’s about the love affair between an American (Ben Affleck) and a French woman (erstwhile Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko.) They meet in a romantic flourish in Paris, eventually relocating to a wide-open-spacey area of Oklahoma, where they run into problems, centered on Affleck’s fear of commitment and Kurylenko’s desire to be a free spirit. And while I know that plot description could easily fit your garden-variety Kate Hudson romantic comedy, that’s not what this is at all.
The film throughout is sprinkled with philosophical voiceovers, and while the ones in “Tree of Life” were mostly about the nature of the universe and our place in it, “To the Wonder” aims lower, mostly at love and romance. The voiceovers get sadder as the central romance goes south.
Also on board are Rachel McAdams as a woman Affleck meets, and Javier Bardem as a priest, undergoing a crisis of faith, who is only tangentially connected to the rest of the movie. And Tatiana Chiline gives a very strong performance as Kurylenko’s daughter. However, this won’t go down as one of Affleck’s better parts; for one thing, he’s a complete cipher of a character who probably doesn’t have more than ten lines in the whole film. I can understand “strong, silent type” parts, but Ben’s not quite the right guy for that.
The 69-year-old Malick, who famously took a 20-year break between his ’70s films and his 1998 comeback “The Thin Red Line,” has for some reason gotten prolific for the first time in late middle age, releasing “To the Wonder” just a year and a half after “Tree of Life.” He’s also now directed twice as many films since his two-decade sabbatical than he did before it. I can understand the attraction of Malick wanting to apply his usual filmmaking techniques to a doomed love affair- and those visuals are amazing- but when it comes to the central couple, there’s just no there, there.
There’s also, with lots of attention paid to Target, Sonic, and other touchstones of suburban/exurban America, the sense that Malick is looking to parrot the whole “American Beauty” thesis about how married people in the suburbs are secretly miserable. I think that point has been made by now, has it not?
At any rate, the lesson of “To the Wonder” appears clear: if you want your marriage to last, you and your spouse should talk to each other, rather than each of you only talking to yourself in meditative voiceover.
NOTE: “To the Wonder” was notably the final film review filed by Roger Ebert prior to his death last week.