Origins of 'Life

Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’ looks at the universe 
through the eyes of love.

By Lori Hoffman

Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Jul. 6, 2011

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Pitt in 'The Tree of Life'

Terrence Malick makes a movie less often than a total eclipse of the sun and when he does, his visual style overwhelms his narrative film structure. In The Tree of Life, his first film since The New World (2005), Malick tackles the question of God, the beginnings of the universe and the basic question of mankind — Why are we here?

Malick comes up with a simple answer, that humanity’s grace is the ability to love, even if that love is the tough love variety as delivered by a strict father in 1950s Texas.

This Texas family life presents the narrative of the film, a template from which Malick soars into tangents, including a visual recap of the origins of the universe and the formation of the earth. It feels like a mash-up of a planetarium show and a “Life With Father” period piece, then a third element is added, a future where we see a nearly wordless Sean Penn as the grown man who is remembering his painful childhood and questioning the purpose of his life.

This is not a film that provides answers or explains itself; you must bring your own emotions and feelings to the events that unfold. And you must bring a lot of patience. Personally, the patience factor eluded me. As much as I found the film fascinating in spots, and understood why comparisons are being made to 2001: A Space Odyssey, because of the back and forth structure of the narrative, it struck me as something that is more maddening than emotionally satisfying.

One can interpret this film as a spiritual journey, as a scientific journey or as a journey to the realization that love is the reason for human existence. Or, you can mix and match as it suits you.

The actors represent universal themes more than characters. Brad Pitt is a father whose view of the world is skewed by his own dashed hopes and bitterness, yet he does love his children with a passion he doesn’t always express. The mother (Jessica Chastain) represents the purity of a love based on the belief that God has a plan, even when that plan includes a tragic loss. Two of the three sons represent the search to define one’s boundaries and push the envelope of love and in particular, trust.

In the end, my interpretation was that The Tree of Life has an illusion of profundity, but it is just that, an illusion.

Hank’s Crowne

Larry Crowne, Tom Hank’s first film as a director since That Thing You Do (1996) is a movie that desperately tries to avoid the obvious clichés of the romantic comedy. That desperation is off-putting at first. Co-written by Hanks and Nia Valdalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), the film begins awkwardly, with the unexpected and not very logical firing of the dependable, likable titled character (played by Hanks). It’s one of those moments when you realize he was fired to set up the rest of the movie, not because it makes sense. Larry, told he has been fired because he had no college education, takes courses at the local community college, where he attracts the attention of a young female student, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who decides to make Larry her pet project, mostly by dressing him better.

The romantic element comes in the form of Julia Roberts as one of his teachers, a woman with a bad marriage, a lack of enthusiasm for her job and a drinking problem. Yes, Larry Crowne will eventually become the teacher’s pet, but the romance is thankfully lacking in obvious romantic comedy clichés. It has a bit of a bite to it, and while the film isn’t exactly groundbreaking, it does finish much better than it begins. Larry Crowne is summertime counter-programming designed for those moviegoers who remember where they were when JFK was shot.

The Tree of Life

Written & directed by Terrence Malick; rated PG-13

Larry Crowne ½

Co-written & directed by Tom Hanks; rated PG-13

To read more about movies and other 
topics covered by movie critic Lori Hoffman visit the ‘Atlantic City Central’ blog at

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1. Ann O'Nimus said... on Jul 7, 2011 at 04:32PM

“Excellent review on Tree of Life. Thanks for being honest and forthright about what is actually in this film. I wish the trailer and descriptions provided had done the same, or I wouldn't have wasted my money on it and felt so used and disillusioned after seeing it! LOL!”

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2. Orsion said... on Jul 10, 2011 at 02:16AM

“Don't mistake ignorance for profundity. You seem to be expecting Malick to be providing answers, when the intelligent thing is to raise the right issues.

Read Whitman's "Song of Myself" again. Watch Andrei Tarkovsky';s "Mirror".

Still, there's always "Transformers" or "Avatar" for you.

Some people don't "get" cinema. Makes you wonder why they are film critics.”


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