Strange, how quickly a signature style can teeter on self-parody. Take “To the Wonder,” writer-director Terrence Malick’s latest since “The Tree of Life,” a movie I thought was enthralling. The look, sounds and pulse of his newest are instantly, recognizably Malick: women clad in timeless dresses lean against sunlit windows, wrap themselves in curtains, twirl and frolic through fields at the magic hour, and jump up and down on beds like little girls. All the while their inner thoughts whisper on the soundtrack, underscored by an orchestral string section whose notes skitter over the images like the sound of spiders plucking their webs.
“To the Wonder” couldn’t be a better parody of a Terrence Malick movie if somebody really witty and malicious were trying hard. The problem here is that, in his more recent works — “The Thin Red Line,” “The New World” and “Tree of Life” — the director was meditating on war and peace, history and nature, and the very question of human existence. “Wonder,” by contrast, is about a bum marriage. The approach and the subject matter just don’t fit together.
Ben Affleck plays a taciturn American whom we meet on a European idyll with Olga Kurylenko, the ravishing single mother of a young girl. They explore Paris and climb the steps into the cloister of the seaside marvel Mont Saint-Michel, the “wonder” of the title. Their names are Neil and Marina, but I don’t recall that they ever address each other. Dialogue is minimal; most of the film drifts along on internal monologues. Javier Bardem also wanders about (in a miasma of his own voice-over thoughts), worrying about the presence or absence of God as he tends to the poor and homeless of Oklahoma. Then there’s Rachel McAdams, redefining “thankless supporting role” in a brief appearance as an old school classmate of Neil’s who becomes his romantic focus when Marina has returned to Europe.
Mainly, though, the movie vaguely pursues the love-hate dance between the central couple. Twirling through sunlit wheatfields, Marina seeks the adoration and attention that the closed-off Neil seems unable to give her. His emotional withholding only drives her into increasing neediness — so much so that, at times, “Wonder” seems about to pitch into “Betty Blue”-style histrionics. But no. Malick is too decorous for that. His film’s murmuring plotlessness sometimes feels almost elemental, tidal. But while in “Tree of Life” the effect was hypnotic, here it’s more soporific.
Rumor has it that this is Malick’s most autobiographical film, a meditation on his marriages to two very different women. In this case, sadly, the specific doesn’t translate into the universal. The movie is a gorgeous, wistful, but emotionally remote mosaic of navel-gazing and regret.
“To the Wonder.” With Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Rated R. 112 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.