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'Knight of Cups' isn't prime Terrence Malick, but it's pretty wonderful

Give into the pretensions and you'll leave with an experience that's hard to shake off. Also: Fabio!

Knight of CupsKnight of Cups

‘Knight of Cups’
Director:
Terrence Malick
Stars: Christian Bale, Natalie Portman
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

With “Knight of Cups,” Terrence Malick has made what’s essentially a two-hour montage, coated in non-stop orchestral music, flowery narration delivered in hushed tones and anguish elevated into epic proportions. In other words, it’s a Terrence Malick movie. These used to be rare: The filmmaker laid low for 20 years between 1978’s “Days of Heaven” and his comeback, “The Thin Red Line.” Now they’re everywhere; there are at least three more en route, each presumably a lot like the rest. We’ve gone from having too few of them to feeling like there’s too many — one film after another that looks and feels the same, but are still unlike any other.

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“Knight of Cups” may be the one that causes fairweather fans to jump ship, even moreso than “To the Wonder” — partly because of repetition, partly because it’s centered on a truly moldy stereotype. The world doesn’t need another movie about a brooding Hollywood player and his empty but debauched life, and it’s just gotten one from one of cinema’s most singular voices. Christian Bale’s Rick is the douche du jour, wandering with a frown and occasionally a booze-soaked grin through parties and girlfriends, sometimes haunted by his aggro dad (Brian Dennehy) and a brother who committed suicide. Malick opens the film with a recording of John Gielgud reciting from “The Pilgrim’s Promise,” but it’s the same old story — a Very Special Episode of “Entourage.”

You could read it that way, or you could give it the benefit of the doubt. You’ve seen this Rick guy before — so, so, so many times — but never quite like this. Even if the subject is old-hat, unworthy of Malick’s cosmic gaze, it gets the Malick treatment anyway. He has a knack for making the familiar and mundane seem rich and strange, as though everything was being experienced for the first time. In “The Tree of Life” he managed to create the sensation of childhood, and the way everything feels new and visceral.

Here, he does the same for sad Los Angeles wealth monsters. Rick’s life is a dream he can’t escape, which doesn’t mean it’s always unpleasant. He seems to enjoy being dragged by six separate ladyfriends to different locales, meaning Malick — who used to exclusively film the past — invades one of the strangest parts of our world now. He films L.A. and Vegas like dreamscapes, awash in fake studio lot city blocks, gyrating hotties in convertibles, empty buildings and hot neon. Celeb-spotting becomes a comically exhausting task; not everyone who’s seen “Knight of Cups” has managed to pick out such random Malick cameo players as Joe Mangianello, Ryan O’Neal, several alums of “The State” and Fabio.

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This might seem like Malick self-parody, but which Malick isn’t? His films openly invite mockery; the last season of “Arrested Development” had a killer parody. It’s entirely possible to accept the silly pretensions of his films and still give one’s self over, body and soul. One can simply turn off and tune in, surrendering to a film without a single shot that doesn’t move, each one flowing into eachother, with quick cuts that create a stutter-step rhythm. One can even detect an actual sense of humor. At one point a Hollywood bro played by Nick Offerman (his face never seen, as is Malick’s wont) quips, “My life is like playing ‘Call of Duty’ on easy. I just walk around f—ing s— up.” It’s only funny because it’s slipped into an austere and melancholic Terrence Malick movie. It’s a wink to the viewer that he knows what he’s doing is rarified, maybe even silly, but he’s doing it anyway, because this is who he is.

And thank whatever that he is: Even this, the least of Malick’s seven films, is one that rewards being giving into, and even being unpacked. The way it keeps switching narrators — sometimes Rick, sometimes one of his gal pals and, at one point, for a stretch, an incorrigibly optimistic party reveler played by Antonio Banderas — makes sure this isn’t just a Norman Mailer-esque ode to a man’s man’s waning libido. Meet it on its own terms and it does what any Malick film does: It changes the way you see the world while it plays, and however long it takes to shake off after.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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