The life and work of Pulitzer-winning poet C.K. Williams gets a wannabe-Malick once-over in “Tar,” a semi-experimental pic written and directed by 12 NYU film students, and supervised by James Franco, who also plays Williams in his 40s. This decades-spanning tale isn’t a biopic so much as a meditation on the poet’s life through the prism of his output (the title comes from a 1983 collection), which the rookie dozen have translated into voiceovers, shots of sunlight through trees and other Malick-isms, down to casting Jessica Chastain as Williams’ postwar-era mother. Pretty and pretty derivative, this won’t move beyond event-type screenings.
Williams (played by Jordan March, Zachary Unger and an impressive Henry Hopper, as well as Franco) grows up in nonlinear fashion, discovering sex and responsibility as well as poetry, context-free bits of which are recited repeatedly in breathy v.o., often recalling Malick’s own Sibylline musings (“How pure we were then, before Rimbaud, before Blake. Grace. Love. Take Care of Us”). Saturated soft-focus lensing helps give the Michigan locations a faux pre-Raphaelite sheen. Tonally surprisingly coherent, Franco’s apostles seem to have directed, as Pauline Kael would’ve said, on their knees.