Just what is missing? Who the hell knows. Apparently it is too vulgar to spell out or even hint at what's actually going on in these figures' heads, not when you can instead show them endlessly mooning about as the camera follows them in a lyrical daze. The "plot" goes like this: Neil (Affleck) meets Parisienne Marina (Kurylenko) and her 10-year-old daughter from a failed marriage. They swan about Europe making goo-goo eyes at each other, then mother and child accompany him back to Oklahoma, but it doesn't work out. Which allows him an interlude to get involved with old flame Jane (McAdams), but that doesn't work out. Then Olga returns and ... just guess. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem turns up as a Catholic priest, playing the Sean Penn Tree of Life role of a peripheral figure that does absolutely nothing but walk around looking bummed.
These people aren't enigmas, they're just blanks the actors can't fill in because the writer-director won't let them. He wants to express pure emotion, but emotions have contexts, too, much as Malick might like to think that women are all organic instinct. When Sissy Spacek spoke vacant "poetry" and ignored her (murderous) man Martin Sheen's faults in 1973's Badlands, it seemed her youthful inexperience was meant to be humorous. But since his career restarted, Malick has suggested dumb 'n' ethereal is his feminine ideal. Kurylenko is the apotheosis of that image: she's part naked sex puppet; part indulged toddler who knows the adults think everything she does is adorable; part twirly-dancing girl at a Dead show; part family dog that only wants to be loved and played with.
Apparently, Malick thinks he's celebrating femininity, but his appreciation omits the possibility of intelligence. He thinks women are marvelous, instinctual animals, while men bear the burden of emotional and intellectual complexity, even if they can't articulate it. Could anything be more condescending? (To the Wonder was autobiographically inspired by his own failed marriage to a Frenchwoman; I'd rather see the movie she'd have made about it.)
No doubt some will find all this profound, because they're primed to and the film certainly acts as though it is. But at some point you have to ask: if the artist can't express his deep thoughts, just indicate that he's having them, how do we know he's a deep thinker at all?
TO THE WONDER opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters.