SONG TO SONG  * 1 / 2 

Starring Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett. Written and directed by Terrence Malick.

The headiest trip to the movies I had last year was Terrence Malick’s Voyage Of Time: The IMAX Experience, a forty-five minute nature documentary chronicling the history and inevitable collapse of the universe with gobsmacking visual effects, soaring classical music cues and a gloriously stoned voice-over by Brad Pitt, who if you closed your eyes you could imagine was still on the couch in True Romance. (A feature length version of the project narrated by a presumably less zonked Cate Blanchett is supposed to be released later this year, but we all know how deadlines tend to slip away from Terry so I’m not exactly holding my breath.)

One of the things I enjoyed most about Voyage Of Time was seeing Malick working on a grand scale again, as for all their cosmic affectations his recent semi-autobiographical mope-a-thons To The Wonder and Knight Of Cups struck this writer as depressingly puny exercises in navel gazing with excellent cinematography. (Pro Tip: If you have Emmanuel Lubezki shooting your belly button lint, it’s gonna look like pretty great belly button lint.) Abstracted to the point of incoherence, these are the shapeless wallows of ill-defined, extremely good-looking people feeling sorry for themselves while murmuring cryptic aphorisms as rays of heavenly sunlight stream between the trees. Sometimes chicks twirl around in fields of grass. Eventually the movie ends.

Shot five years ago in Austin, TX during the South By Southwest music festival, Song To Song is an unofficial capper to Malick’s modern day Bad Boyfriend Trilogy, and it feels like the filmmaker hitting a brick wall having exhausted this particular improvisational modus operandi. For better or worse, a lot of Malick’s movies feel like they were made up as they went along during the shoot. This one feels like it’s still being made up as you’re sitting in the theater watching it.

Rooney Mara stars as a musician of some sort (specifics are not the picture’s strong suit) caught up in something like a love triangle with Ryan Gosling’s bland pianist and Michael Fassbender’s Mephistophelean record label executive. It’s difficult to discern exactly when things are supposed to be happening, as Malick’s memory-driven montage slips back and forth in time, often mid-sentence.

At some point or another Fassbender takes up with a pie-eyed diner waitress played by Natalie Portman, corrupting her horribly and crushing her spirit. (It’s implied they get into drugs and threesomes, but we never actually witness such tawdry exploits.) Gosling shacks up with Cate Blanchett for a spell, and in a handful of scenes the actress conjures a wounded weariness more concrete than anything else in this vague, airy picture – which is saying something considering most of her screen time is devoted to the camera admiring how she looks in a backless dress. (In Malick and Lubezki’s defense, Blanchett has an extraordinary back.)

As in Knight Of Cups, Malick’s got a weirdly churchy way of leering – Lubezki’s lens caresses fully clothed bodies while forlorn classical music laments the tragic consequences of the characters’ off-screen fornication. Nobody fucks in this movie. They nuzzle, canoodle, smush their noses together and generally act like fifth graders with crushes punching each other in the shoulder at recess. Even at the lowest depths of Fassbender’s alleged depravity he brings home two hookers and play-wrestles with them on the bed while wearing dress pants and a belt. Hardly a sequel to Shame.

With the exception of the aforementioned Blanchett, these actors all have that deer-in-the-headlights look Ben Affleck perfected in To The Wonder, glancing around as if nervously waiting for someone to yell “Cut!” Gosling is at his smirky worst, unable to ground a barely-there character whose storyline randomly turns into Five Easy Pieces in the final half-hour. Fassbender and Portman pound on the single notes they’re given to play to the point of monotony, while Mara is such a recessive screen presence it’s almost cruel to task her with anchoring all this driftwood.

Stronger impressions are made in scant moments by Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, playing themselves backstage and rudely cut away from mid-monologues. Val Kilmer shows up and chainsaws a speaker cabinet, claiming he bought some uranium off his mom. Whatever crazy movie Val seems to think he’s in is one I wished I was watching instead of Song To Song.


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