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Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘To the Wonder’ – twirling to nowhere

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” is about a girl who lost her twirl.

Malick, of course, is the famously infertile filmmaker who once went two decades between movies.  After blazing a name for himself with a pair of brilliant efforts in the 1970s, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” Malick went all J.D. Salinger on us. Reclusive. Elusive. Legendary.

Finally, in 1998, he completed the fairly oblique albeit star-laden “The Thin Red Line,” a World War II tale that misused everybody from Sean Penn to George Clooney.

But it was pure genius compared to Malick’s follow-ups: “The New World,” an epic-sized bit of nonsense about Pocahontas, and the interminable — and interminably ludicrous — “The Tree of Life,” which co-starred Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and some dinosaurs.

Now, it seems, you can’t get him to stop making movies. Measured by his previous pace, Malick is positively churning them out, one after the other, still piling up the plaudits and the awards and the prestige slots at important film festivals. And yet, “The Thin Red Line,” “The New World,” and “The Tree of Life” put together are worth less than three minutes of either of his ‘70s masterpieces

“To the Wonder” trades Pitt for Neil (an almost mute Ben Affleck; (I’d be stunned to learn he had more than 30 lines in the entire picture).  And Chastain is replaced by twirly girl, Marina (Olga Kurylenko).

When we first meet them, Neil and Marina are madly, truly, deeply in love in Paris. We first see her twirl on the beach at Mont Saint-Michel, near Normandy. And boy, can she twirl.

She twirls like a falling snowflake, a spinning pinwheel, a Sugar Plum Fairy. She does it effortlessly and, I’m afraid, infinitely   For Marina, to live is to twirl. To twirl is to live. And the more she twirls, the more Neil loves her.

And no, um, wonder…

She’s the goddess of twirl.

Malick must have a thing for twirly girls.  “Badlands” begins with Sissy Spacek practicing her baton twirling on her daddy’s front lawn. In “Days of Heaven,” our narrator, the simple-but-street-smart urchin played by Linda Mantz likes to twirl too. Well, why not? She’s ten-twelve years old at best. (Spacek’s “Badlands” character, by the way, is supposed to be all of 15; the actress was in her early 20s.)

When Malick began his comeback in the late 1990’s, I don’t remember much twirling. I’m not sure if I remember any. But that’s ok, because “To the Wonder” has enough twirling for 20 movies.

For some reason, Neil decides to go back to the States, back home to Oklahoma. He invites Marina and her much-less-twirly daughter to come with him.

He does not offer marriage.

Unfortunately, all Oklahoma has to offer are those endless plains, the ones the wind comes sweeping down.  Marina is — how you say en francaise?—  zee feesh out of  zee water?

She’s miserable. He’s unhappy, too; we can tell cause Affleck’s chin gets juttier and his stubble stubblier. (He really needs to stick to directing.)

Marina returns to Paris, taking her twirl and her little girl with her. Neil mopes for a while, then runs into an old high school flame, played radiantly (under the circumstances) by Rachel McAdams. It looks like they might make a go of it, but he apparently has a problem with commitment.

Meanwhile, back in Paree, Marina just has problems.

She wants to come back. Should she? Should he allow her? And if so, what happens to McAdams?  Should she learn to twirl before it’s too late?

Oh, and I almost forgot about The Priest. The lost, questioning, yet unquestionably good priest, played by Javier Bardem. He’s in Oklahoma, but I’ll bet, if he could twirl, he’d be somewhere else.

“To the Wonder” is gorgeous looking. Every film Malick makes is gorgeous looking, with “Days of Heaven” the most gorgeous-looking of all.  It is, perhaps, the most gorgeous-looking picture ever made.

But nobody ever praised it for its script, and nobody’s likely to praise “To the Wonder’ for its script either. Rather, you become somewhat embarrassed to be in the same room with it. Like having to watch a not-very-talented little girl practice ballet (well, twirls) in her parents living room at their request. They’re enchanted; she’s trying her best; and you wish you could be anywhere but there.

“To the Wonder” is like the worst foreign-language art movie you can imagine — from 1962. Or the worst earnestly A-mur-i-can indie flick — from 1979.

“To the moon, Alice!” an exasperated Jackie Gleason used to say on the old “Honeymooners” series.

Not to the Wonder, Terrence…To the moon…

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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