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Top actors play Austin bores in Malick’s ‘Song to Song’

Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling play musicians in love in “Song to Song.” | BROAD GREEN PICTURES

What a miserable lot of beautiful, self-absorbed, emotionally stunted people we meet in Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song,” and what sweet relief we feel when the last bit of ponderous narration comes to a close, and the last gorgeous but numbingly repetitive shot fades to black.

Deep into the film, one character pines for a lost love, saying she can no longer look at the birds in the sky, because they once looked at the birds in the sky together, and when she sees the birds in the sky, they remind her of him.

I was half-hoping she’d conclude her prose poem by saying, “Obsession, by Calvin Klein.”

Much of “Song to Song” plays like an extended perfume commercial, or one those Matthew McConaughey car ads where he talks about how it’s not about huggin’ trees or being cool, and then he falls backwards into his swimming pool or sees himself in the back seat of his own car or whatever. Malick (and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) deliver one stunning visual after another, but the characters are so shallow and irritating, and their dialogue is so ponderous, all those exquisite shots are just fancy frames around pretentious art that almost reaches the level of parody of the filmmaker’s previous work.

“Song to Song” is set against the backdrop of the Austin, Texas, music scene. Michael Fassbender’s Cook is a Svengali-like mogul with a house as huge and as cold as his persona. Rooney Mara’s Faye is a musician who started working for Cook as an assistant when she was a teenager, and has been his lover for a number of years. Completing the triangle is Ryan Gosling’s BV, a talented singer/songwriter who becomes Cook’s protégé and also falls in love with Faye, who doesn’t tell BV she’s sleeping with his beloved mentor.

Deep breath. It gets more complicated from there.

Writer-director Malick favors a circular storyline, so when Cook falls for Natalie Portman’s Rhonda, a poor country waitress, it takes a while to realize this happened at some point in the past. (The normally sublime Portman does not make for a convincing down-on-her luck Texas waitress, blonde hair job and half-hearted twang notwithstanding.)

The intertwining, sometimes overlapping love quadrangle becomes something of a love hexagon, with Cate Blanchett’s wealthy divorcee and Bernice Marlohe’s wealthy French lesbian popping up for brief interludes.

We also get some strange little cameos from Iggy Pop, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Lydon from the Sex Pistols — and Val Kilmer, who shows up at a music festival, takes the stage, cut his own hair with a knife, and then gets REALLY weird. There’s no reason for any of them to be in this movie. At least Patti Smith (playing Patti Smith) has a few genuinely insightful moments, as she becomes something of mother figure for Rooney’s Faye. It’s a warm and intelligent performance.

Nearly every major character in “Song to Song” is struggling with depression or at least a terminal case of ennui. Malick conveys fleeting moments of happiness in manic, mostly dialogue-free sequences in which Faye and BV hop and jump and run and dance and kick up dirt, or Cook and BV indulge in some not-very-subtle homoerotic wrestling and bro-bonding, or Cook and Rhonda the waitress exchange longing glances.

Every time we see a billowing curtain, a female character won’t be able to resist the urge to wrap herself in the drapery, demonstrating she’s a shadowy enigma — or maybe she just likes to wrap herself in curtains. Every time a character looks longingly at the horizon, get ready for another piece of narration about lost dreams and broken hearts, or broken dreams and lost hearts.

For all the TALK of music in “Song to Song,” and all the scenes where Cook and BV, and BV and Faye, and Cook and Rhonda, and Cook and BV and Faye, are backstage at outdoor music festivals, and all the tension between Cook and BV as they try to make an album together, there’s precious little performing in the film. Gosling’s BV plinks at the piano a handful of times, but he doesn’t seem nearly as talented as that Sebastian guy from “La La Land.” Mara’s Faye plucks away at her guitar a couple of times, but she seems vastly more interested in rolling around with Cook or BV or the wealthy French lesbian than in pursuing her craft.

So many empty vessels, passing in the night. So many great actors, cast adrift by a script that feels incomplete and a brilliant director delivering one of his lesser works.

★★

Broad Green Pictures presents a film written and directed by Terrence Malick. Rated R (for some sexuality, nudity, drug use and language). Running time: 129 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC River East and Landmark Century Centre.