There lurks in “Knight of Cups” the makings of a pretty good travelogue.
But on most other counts the latest feature from the increasingly irritating Terrence Malick shows him firmly stuck in the same prison of self-parody that doomed his last outing, the unromantic romance “To the Wonder.”
Malick, of course, is the low-profile cinematic genius who back in the ’70s gave us “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” then moved on to offbeat period pieces (“The Thin Red Line,” “The New World”) before delivering his ultimate statement, 2011’s memorable (for all the right reasons) “The Tree of Life.”
“Knight of Cups” is ostensibly a Hollywood insider tale, a sort of “La Dolce Vida” look at feckless, amoral living among the beautiful people.
In fractured, impressionistic style it follows a screenwriter named Rick (Christian Bale), as he engages in romantic wanderings, professional and family issues, and hedonistic pastimes. That description makes the film sound coherent. It isn’t.
Malick eschews conventional narrative construction and character development in favor of sweeping, swooning handheld cinematography of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the desert by frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity,” “Birdman,” “The Revenant”). His characters almost never actually speak lines, except in the form of vacuous party chatter. Instead we hear their innermost thoughts, whispered in voiceover.
As for the story … what story?
Rick goes through a series of lovers, all of them willowy beauties whose personalities are best summed up by their pre-Raphaelite tresses. Presumably he has sex, although there’s nothing remotely romantic or erotic going on here (Malick has never done sexy).
We meet Rick’s ex (Cate Blanchett), an MD serving the homeless in a free health clinic who was turned off by the empty trappings of Rick’s Hollywood lifestyle.
And then there’s the married woman (Natalie Portman) who, finding herself pregnant and not knowing if Rick or her husband was the father, had an abortion. Now she’s depressed.
He deals with his brother (Wes Bentley), a recovering addict, and their father (Brian Dennehy), a giant of a man slipping into angry dementia.
He drifts ghostlike through a huge show-biz party hosted by a Eurotrash charmer (Antonio Banderas) and has a brief philosophical conversation with a guru-ish older man (the late novelist Peter Matthiesen).
A whole slew of familiar faces (Armin Mueller-Stall, Cherry Jones, Michael Wincott, Kevin Corrigan, Jason Clarke, Joel Kinsman, Clifton Collins Jr., Nick Offerman, Dane DeHaan, Shea Wigham, Ryan O’Neal) pop up, sometimes for only a few seconds of screen time. Viewers who get desperately bored can always approach “Knight of Cups” as a cinematic version of “Where’s Waldo?”
As for the title, references to tarot cards run throughout the film and in the various chapter titles (“Death,” “The Hermit,” “The Moon,” “The Hanged Man”).
And through it all, Bale maintains the slight grimace of a man whose last meal doesn’t agree with him.
Here’s a thought: Rather than watching “Knight of Cups” in a theater, the film should be projected on a museum wall. There its impressive technical accomplishments — cinematography, editing, sound — might work nicely in establishing an all-encompassing atmosphere. ‘Cause it sure ain’t entertainment.