Halfway through “Knight of Cups,” the latest treatise from philosopher-filmmaker Terrence Malick, the movie’s chorus of internal monologues yields a line that could be read as a memo to the director himself: “Don’t get your head too far up your own ass.”

Malick is a rare filmmaker who strives for nothing less than transcendence in his movies. They exist in a kind of reverie, guided by the free-associating logic of memory rather than the linear narratives typically favored by cinema. Their stories emerge as a series of impressionistic fragments, where dialogue often takes second place to overlapping voice-overs articulating the characters’ inner lives.

For viewers who don’t reflexively roll their eyes at the slightest hint of spirituality, Malick’s cinematic meditations can be transporting, and fans cling to them with the fervor of religious zealots. Yet the director’s output has become increasingly indigestible since his 2011 Palme d’Or winner, “The Tree of Life.”

Knight of Cups (Seihaitachi no Kishi)
Run Time 118 mins
Language English
Opens DEC. 23

He reaches a new peak of inscrutability in “Knight of Cups,” a discursive ramble through the life and loves of a Hollywood screenwriter suffering an existential crisis. Malick’s most experimental film to date, it’s also his least emotionally involving: If “The Tree of Life” aimed for the heart, this one’s too busy gazing at its navel.

It centers around Rick (Christian Bale), a dissolute, depressed scribe, who never seems to do any work but spends a lot of time surrounded by attractive women at parties, looking a trifle uncomfortable. As the film unfolds, we’re introduced to his estranged father (Brian Dennehy) and emotionally troubled brother (Wes Bentley), as well as a succession of romantic entanglements.

Cate Blanchett pops up as Rick’s former wife, bringing a wounded soulfulness to the film that’s missed as soon as she’s gone. Rick also gets involved with a married woman (Natalie Portman), a free-spirited pole dancer (Teresa Palmer) and a fashion model (Freida Pinto), among others. Each of these characters is given a separate segment, titled after a tarot card, meaning that despite its malleable structure the film ends up feeling a tad episodic, not to mention repetitive.

It doesn’t help that the people Rick encounters are generally better company than he is. (When Antonio Banderas appears as a charismatic lothario, you’ll wish you could elope with him instead.) Though elements of the character are clearly autobiographical — Malick started out as a screenwriter and, like his protagonist, had a younger brother who killed himself — Rick is a drag to be around. Quotations from John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” lend an aura of gravitas to his spiritual malaise without ever making it gripping.

There are repeated shots of Rick traipsing through the desert in a forlorn daze, and I suppose Malick’s depiction of Hollywood could be seen as a sort of moral purgatory: all those sterile modernist apartments, rococo mansions and inane conversations between industry execs. But we don’t need Malick to tell us that Tinseltown is vapid — filmmakers have been saying the same thing for decades. That someone could live in such a glossy, superficial environment and not feel completely fulfilled doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

It’s a shame given that the film’s fabric is so alluring. Malick’s visuals never disappoint: “Knight of Cups” uses a variety of formats, from 65-mm film to GoPro, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s handheld camera probes the action with a documentary-style curiosity. At times, it’s like watching a piece of experimental video art that just happens to feature a bunch of well-known actors.

You could think of “Knight of Cups” as Malick’s “Ulysses,” a deconstruction of cinematic form that’s easy to admire in principle but harder to enjoy in practice. Yet I can’t help feeling that he’s looking for profundity in the wrong places here. This cup is definitely empty.

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