Song to Song” finds auteur filmmaker Terrence Malick in his hometown of Austin, Texas, where he explores two unstable romantic relationships through their various iterations. It also finds him squarely in the land of inadvertent self-parody, where style trumps substance and virtually all the dialogue is a dreamy, nonsensical voiceover. I think I could have given him the benefit of the doubt if not for that voiceover.
There are many wonderful elements to this film, and it’s not impossible to enjoy, but I have reservations. The cast includes Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender, as a songwriter and a producer, respectively, who play good friends working together until professional and, more importantly, romantic entanglements take over. That entanglement is in the person of Rooney Mara, subverting the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl by being totally expressionless.
I have admired Mara’s work in films in the past, but I found her pale, drawn face scowling at her smitten admirers while she drones the nonsensical script in a dispassionate voiceover singularly unappealing. Was I simply jealous because she couldn’t even muster a smile in the face of two of the most appealing male leads you’re likely to encounter on screen? Possibly.
I think it can be argued, however, despite my personal prejudices in favor of her castmates, that it isn’t very compelling to explore the artistic impulses of an alleged musician who is never shown singing, writing music or playing an instrument. She attends many outdoor concerts, and one of the best parts of the film is the many real-life musicians who appear, including Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, both of whom contribute short but memorable sequences.
Malick’s 2011 film “The Tree of Life” was also an almost unintelligible dreamscape, but that was in service to a story composed of many childhood memories, and was gloriously, beautifully effective. To continue to repeat these impressionistic techniques, however lovely they may be, has resulted in a very long perfume commercial with “Song to Song.”
And while sex is a big part of the story, I found Mara’s Faye, the object of affection and obsession, mostly inert, while the two dueling men have much more interesting chemistry as friends and foes. Again, I think this may because they actually have dialogue with each other, while Faye mostly speaks her thoughts in voiceover. “Song to Song” seems, and I believe I said this when I reviewed Malick’s last movie “Knight of Cups,” embarrassingly similar to a perfume commercial.
The films are also embarrassingly similar to each other. In fact, if you haven’t seen “Knight of Cups,” which is a sensual exploration of, well, sensuality, I believe — if I’m recalling accurately — you would probably appreciate “Song to Song” more.
The film really is visually beautiful, and if you’re interested in Austin, which is a perfectly appropriate thing in which to be interested, this film isn’t without watchability points. I have mentioned the appeal of the leads to a point that I have most likely embarrassed myself, and Patti Smith is in it, so it’s not all bad. But it’s not all that good, either.
“Song to Song” is currently available to rent.