Edelstein on latest films by Allen, Malick

Can two new films from a pair of big name directors help us answer life's big questions? Here's our critic David Edelstein:

Two nostalgic movies by American legends had splashy openings at the Cannes Film Festival and have washed up on our shores.

From the scarily prolific pessimist Woody Allen comes the supernatural comedy "Midnight in Paris"; from the scarily reclusive transcendentalist Terrence Malick the free-form symbolic epic, "The Tree of Life."

Let's start with Woody. His latest films are like breezy Biblical parables, except there's no God or justice or love. Life is meaningless. The best you can do is find a good restaurant.

I have a problem buying into the worldview of someone whose world is a closed ecosystem, who's locked in some romantic daydream of old movies and music. The good news is that in "Midnight in Paris," Allen has made the exhilaration and danger of living in the past his theme.

Owen Wilson is wonderfully dopey and sad as a screenwriter in Paris with his upwardly-mobile fiancée. He wants to stay and write novels. Really what he wants is to be in Paris in the Twenties, alongside Scott and Zelda, Hemingway, and all those giants living high and making art.

Then at midnight - poof! - he's back in time. How? Allen breezes past all that - which is good! Why do we need dumb sci-fi wheels and pulleys?

What Wilson learns from the breathtaking Marion Cotillard as the girlfriend of various Twenties painters is that most people are nostalgic for the past, even people in the past. So wake up and live in the present!

... and I'm talking to you, too, Woody, even though you wrote it.

Photos: "Midnight in Paris" premieres
Woody Allen explores fantasy world with "Midnight in Paris"
Woody Allen: Getting Older a "Lousy Deal"
"Midnight in Paris" (Sony Pictures Classics official website)
Woody Allen: Work Prevents My Obsessing Morbidly

"Midnight in Paris" is light and funny. "The Tree of Life," the opposite. Only Terrence Malick's fifth movie in almost 40 years, it's his big one, part creation epic, part Oedipal family drama, an answer to Kubrick's "2001" and maybe Milton's "Paradise Lost."

He uses all his cinematic resources to trace the connections between the fleeting and the infinite - and if that sounds pretentious, you ain't heard nothing yet.

There is little story as such. Brad Pitt plays the macho head of a Fifties Texas family, and Sean Penn his son (when middle-aged). But this is less a narrative than a tapestry of images, some depicting the birth of the cosmos and beginning of life on earth - with dinosaurs!

How does it connect? In Malick's films, we're born into the Garden of Eden that is the natural world, then civilization and sex and aggression corrupt us. Penn is the guy who has to get back to the Garden. Too bad he only totters around looking stricken.

"The Tree of Life" is divisive. For Malick freaks, it rocks their world. Others will want to throw rocks at anyone who recommends it. It doesn't jell. It's madly self-indulgent.

But I think some selves are vast enough to be worth indulging.

Photos: The films of Terrence Malick
Malick's "Tree of Life" wins top honor at Cannes
Photos: Cannes Film Festival awards
Photos: "The Tree of Life" at Cannes
Brad Pitt on his paternal side, on screen and off
"The Tree of Life" (Fox Searchlight official site)