With the pretentious voice-overs about THE MEANING OF IT ALL and the endless shots of beautiful people gazing at the horizon and splashing in the ocean, “Knight of Cups” plays like a nearly two-hour parody of a Terrence Malick film, as directed by Terrence Malick.
From “Badlands” to “Days of Heaven” to “The Thin Red Line” to “Tree of Life,” the enigmatic Malick has gifted us with beautiful, haunting, elegiac work — but at times his movies are so ethereal and abstruse, it’s as if he’s daring the audience to exit the theater (or punch in another channel on the remote).
Such is the case with “Knight of Cups,” which is all about a handsome, successful Hollywood screenwriter who wears Armani clothes, drives a vintage Lincoln Continental convertible and beds a succession of the world’s most desirable women while pondering whether to accept an offer that will make him filthy rich — which sounds like a pretty sweet deal, yet this guy spends most of his waking hours in a state of restless funk, seemingly incapable of embracing and fully immersing himself in the gift of a great life.
In the immortal words of the comedian Artie Lange: Waaaaaaaaah.
Malick frames his story in a series of chapters introduced with tarot cards. In full-on brooding, self-absorbed, inaccessible Method acting mode, Christian Bale plays Rick, the aforementioned wandering soul of a screenwriter. (The upright Knight of Cups tarot card represents an artistically inclined dreamer who’s often restless; when reversed, the Knight of Cups card is indicative of a reckless, unreliable spirit who has trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction.)
In a voice-over, we hear of a young knight who “forgot he was the son of a king and fell into a deep sleep.”
Rick wanders around Los Angeles in something of a haze, occasionally springing to life in non-linear episodes involving intense but brief romances with a stripper (Teresa Palmer), a married woman (Natalie Portman), a model (Freida Pinto) and his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) back in the days before the marriage went sour. (That’s just a partial list.)
Blanchett plays a doctor who specializes in treating the disfigured and the horribly injured. Yet her character is hardly distinguishable from the model or the stripper or the married woman. They’re all just gorgeous reflections, bathing in Rick’s sunlight when he’s charming and shivering in his cold shadow when he grows bored with them and is ready to move on.
Nearly every woman Rick encounters winds up soaking wet. They jump in swimming pools fully clothed (and not so fully clothed), they splash about in the ocean, they twirl and swirl like newly baptized nymphets that exist only to serve Rick’s carnal desires.
Antonio Banderas plays Tonio, a Hefner-esque hedonist who hosts a huge and wild party at his palatial estate. (We catch glimpses of familiar actors such as Ryan O’Neal at the party, presumably playing themselves.) Wes Bentley shows up as Rick’s brother, Barry, a minister and recovering drug addict who seems in no way equipped to be helping anyone out. (There’s talk of a third brother, now dead. One begins to wonder if he’s the lucky one, as Rick and Barry are miserable human beings solo and misery squared together.)
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has won three consecutive Oscars (for “Gravity, “”Birdman” and “The Revenant”) shoots Los Angeles through filters and angles and camera moves that give new perspective on even the most familiar L.A. streets and landmarks. There’s never a moment when “Knight of Cups” isn’t something to behold, visually.
Problem is, whether we take the story literally or as a grand metaphor, brimming with excerpts from “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and Plato, biblical allusions and Symbolic Characters, “Knight of Cups” is a ponderous affair, never taking 30 seconds to make a point when four minutes is available.
Broad Green Pictures presents a film written and directed by Terrence Malick. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated R (for some nudity, sexuality and language). Opens Friday at AMC River East 21 and Landmark Century Centre.