Recently I saw two movies, which taken together indicate a critical point about all fiction: You must deliver what you promise.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, the new Woody Allen-directed movie starring Owen Wilson, is completely charming. From the beginning it promises comedy with a bit of soul, and that's what you get. Owen Wilson, a writer uncertain of his talents and consistently undermined by his bitchy fiancee, somehow (a key that this is not a movie to be taken seriously) goes back in time to 1920's Paris. He meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Cole Porter. Nothing makes a lot of sense, but it doesn't have to. It's great fun, and we're rooting for the protagonist, who is befuddled but enthusiastic (and nobody does enthusiastic befuddlement better than Owen Wilson). There are lots of literary jokes that apparently only the writers I was with got, judging from the silence in the rest of the theater while we were laughing our heads off: Owen Wilson tells T.S. Eliot about Hollywood: "Where I come from, we measure our lives in coke spoons."
In contrast, THE TREE OF LIFE signifies from the very beginning that it is meant to be taken very seriously. Even the music, a weird mixture of opera and New Age, shouts: SIGNIFICANCE. Unfortunately, the movie is pretentious and boring. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was in this film. I am interested in, and in sympathy with, its underlying message: There is more to life and death than we know. But the film tries to convey this through endless images of clouds, the tops of trees, hands lifted skyward, and whispered voice-overs that are almost incomprehensible because they're so whispered. There is also a long stretch of images recapitulating the birth of the solar system right through all of evolution. No dialogue here but lots of portentous music. Counterpointed to all this is the ordinary life of a 1950's family in Waco, Texas, doing ordinary things. The boy portraying the young Sean Penn is a good actor, but he's not given much to do beyond glower at the world. The adult Sean Penn is given even less, and what he does do has no real context. Why does his brother's death thirty years ago make him incapable of concentrating on his (unspecified) job now?
By the time the last pretty image (sunflowers) appeared on screen, I was bored to tears -- and I LIKE slow-paced, ambiguous movies with mystical overtones. But not this one. Go see MIDNIGHT IN PARIS instead.