You Can Skip This Oscar Pick

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February 6th, 2012

Hunter McCracken and Jessica Chastain in The Tree Of LifeI should apologize ahead of time for this review. I am in a snit, a tizzy, a bit of a funk and maybe even a little jealous. It’s all because I watched The Tree Of Life as the final missing link in my Oscars viewing. That’s […]

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Hunter McCracken and Jessica Chastain in The Tree Of LifeI should apologize ahead of time for this review. I am in a snit, a tizzy, a bit of a funk and maybe even a little jealous. It’s all because I watched The Tree Of Life as the final missing link in my Oscars viewing. That’s two hours and nineteen minutes of my life that are gone for good, evaporated.

Nominated for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Picture, I was certainly intrigued. But I should have listened to my inner critic who remembered the handwritten sign at the Main Theatre (when the film played there for about a day or two) “Refunds for The Tree Of Life will only be given within the first ten minutes.”

I will do my best to summarize the movie so you don’t have to see it. Sean Penn is the grown-up son of a 1950s Brad Pitt. He gets on an elevator because he’s depressed or distracted about something but apparently it’s not about the upcoming 15-20 minutes of the universe’s creation. Imagine an impressionistic view of the Big Bang, moving forward through the outer reaches of the galaxy coalescing into earth. Then water, volcanoes and plant life happen. It all culminates when a weird looking dinosaur runs up and puts its foot on another dinosaur’s face, off and on for a minute or two.

Then it gets weird. Brad Pitt is married to Jessica Chastain (the cool white lady who’s ostracized in The Help) but he’s a bully to his kids. So Chastain gets to alternate between floating in the backyard, sitting around looking ethereal and fighting Pitt physically or psychologically. And she basically does it all without talking.

Three young unknown actors play their children; at one point Penn and his younger self show up in the same scene (SPOILER ALERT: it’s in Eternity, but I had to look it up online because it just looked like a bunch of the actors at a wrap party). The time-space continuum is abused so badly, it files for a restraining order and eventual imprisonment for director Terrence Malick.

Throughout the movie, a quiet voice whispers existential questions that are supposed to sound profound and lead you to knowing in your gut why a boy blows up a frog or sneaks into a neighbor’s house and steals her nightgown only to release it in a nearby river. At the end, the earth gets consumed by the sun and Sean Penn gets off the elevator and looks up at either his office building, a tree of life or the closing credits. We think even he’s glad the film’s over.

Like the Main Theatre, Netflix had its own warning ahead of time. It told us to turn up the volume on our BluRay player so we could hear all the subtle nuances. Consider this blog entry my own version of a warning. You will more than likely not finish watching it. If you do, you’ll probably hate it.

But I could be wrong. Obviously some people liked it. Word has it that Malick spent years working on this movie in various iterations. At one point he had a bunch of it shot in IMAX and spent millions on complicated CGI scenes. Supposedly he would only share certain bits and pieces of it with the studio until they demanded a coherent beginning and ending. Obviously their demands were never met.

For a film that purportedly ruminates on the meaning of life and spirituality, it feels like the director was simply trying to pull one over on all of us. I got the impression that the beautiful IMAX scenes were shot for one movie (which had no beginning, middle or end) and that the Brad Pitt scenes were for an entirely different movie which was only halfway done. Forget the Sean Penn scenes altogether; they appeared to be part of yet a third short film called either The Architect Rides The Elevator or A Man In A Suit Goes To The Desert.

For all my bashing of this film, I think Jessica Chastain did a wonderful job and was the highlight of the movie. The three unknown boys were also really good at playing the roles of three unknown boys. The cinematography, too, is fantastic but without a storyline or a point, it’s wasted.

This is where I get jealous. If I had access to 30-40 million dollars and some high wattage stars, I just know I could do better. I’d start with Chastain and Pitt eating waffles and arguing about WWI. They’d be joined by an overworked Penn in a waitress gown and they’d yell until they lost their voices. We’d title it War Hoarse. I’d even offer to pay back the audiences after 20 minutes instead of just 10.

Yes, you can call me a Philistine. You can say it’s poetry or I’m too dense to get it. I love movies though. I understand time warps as they occur in the wonderful Midnight in Paris or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. To prove my love to you, my annual Best Of list will follow in this space very soon.

But this film made me feel bad about myself. That just shouldn’t be. How come I didn’t like what “everyone” else loved. I think everyone is being hoodwinked on a massive scale. I honestly believe the Emperor is parading around without so much as a stitch of underwear and the Academy thinks he’s wearing Gucci. At least the devil wore Prada.

Said Sean Penn to the magazine Le Figaro, “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, (director Terrence Malick) himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”

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