Hollywood loves to celebrate itself and its culture of excess, but every now and then an insider comes along with an exposé of the dark side of Tinseltown’s flashy exterior. Throughout film history, from Billy Wilder to the Coen brothers to David Lynch, directors have explored the false promises and broken spirits behind southern California’s dream factory.
Now we can count Terrence Malick among their midst. In his new film Knight of Cups, the director behind such awe-inspiring movies as The Tree of Life and Days of Heaven attempts to diagnose a case of Hollywood malaise as a spiritual problem. While that promising premise delivers some eye-catching sequences, the end result is more often than not exasperating: A film that treats philosophical and theological ideas as potpourri with which to decorate the well-furnished room its characters wander in and out of.
Knight of Cups takes us on a magic carpet ride through Los Angeles and environs with Rick (Christian Bale), a directionless screenwriter seeking meaning and contrition for his hedonistic lifestyle after his brother’s death. Across eight chapters named after tarot cards, Rick shares brief, epiphanic episodes with his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), his father (Brian Dennehy), his brother (Wes Bentley), and a married woman (Natalie Portman) in between dalliances with a parade of starlets and strippers. While many Malick protagonists have trod similarly wayward paths, Rick’s life of womanizing and thrill seeking is a far cry from the chaste nature wandering and cathedral-worshipping of Malick’s former creations.
Indeed, Malick acolytes who gaped at The Tree of Life’s rapturous depiction of the creation of the universe may be thrown by Knight’s manic diversions into Los Angeles nightlife. Though compared to the increasingly more vulgar self-portraits Hollywood churns out year after year, Malick’s impression of this world is charmingly modest; the image of a topless model anointing Christian Bale’s forehead with champagne just isn’t as lurid when it’s set to Malick’s choice of dainty classical music.
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