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'Tree of Life' wins Palme d'Or: a fig leaf for an emperor with no clothes?

Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" has won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. I guess that's the consolation prize for its failure to help ignite the Rapture. Malick has made a high-flown mash of modernist pseudo-poetry and Creationist pseudo-thinking about seeing the divine in all things. Malick sticks the Earth's formation into the autobiographical story of three brothers growing up in Waco, Texas, with an authoritarian father (Brad Pitt) and a loving mom just a bit too ethereal to be called an Earth Mother (Jessica Chastain). The oldest brother matures into Sean Penn at his most inert and tortured. What did he do to earn that singular punishment from writer-director Malick? Weren't his dad's constant be-a-man taunts and sermons punishment enough?

The story jumps from the 1960s, when the parents learn of their middle son's death, to Penn's character in the present day, reminiscing about his family in the 1950s. Even without the lengthy cosmic interlude that peaks with the creation of dinosaurs and ends (I think) with a meteor catalyzing the Ice Age, the structure is ludicrously busy and confusing. The '60s snippet suggests that Pitt's striving, emotionally oblivious character ultimately becomes a tender, loving man. With typical arbitrariness or perversity, Malick places that bit before we see Pitt in action as the sort of parent who believes he must be cruel to prepare his children for the harshness of the world.

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The youngest brother sticks out like a third thumb -- is he there just to fill out the table in the dining room? To be fair, the depiction of the older two gets at the way parental tyranny and favoritism can taint a fraternal bond. And Pitt conveys the devotion, ambition and frustration that went into the making of certain Greatest Generation parents. But Malick's whimsical staging and chaotic framework undercut the performance; at first you think that Pitt is pulling off another reverse-aging process, a la "Benjamin Button" (a movie that deserved the accolades for originality and excellence that "Tree of Life" is getting now).

Malick's movie-making here is all forced spontaneity and failed inspiration. He uses tricks to make the actors feel immediate. He keeps his cast "in the moment" -- whether by tossing an obstreperous child into a scene or having a parent wake her kids with ice cubes. But what's the good of being "in the moment" if the moment is a thin variation of one you've seen a nanosecond before?

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As a director, Malick is an adolescent daydreamer, complete with classical music out of the basic repertoire, and voice-over dialogue that belongs in a beatnik cafe. You can imagine him 50 years ago listening to Smetana's "Moldau" while thinking his happiest thoughts about his family and imagining he'll put it all together some day with a science-friendly view of Genesis.

The planetary birth throes are spectacular, not revolutionary -- "Hubble 3D" got to most of them first. (John Huston did a more earthbound but also more magical and poetic version of Creation in "The Bible.") Yes, there's a sprinkling of choice family tragicomedy and flavorful local color in the '50s scenes.

But Waco begins to look wacko, and the overall effect is wispy. Most of my favorite moments are in the two-minute trailer, which includes my very favorite -- boys frolicking through the clouds emitted by a DDT truck. In the movie itself, the humans grow dull. You find yourself wishing for more dinosaurs.


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