Thomas Lennon, best known for Reno 911!, is one of a billion celebrities who flit through Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick's Los Angeles–set latest. There's Dan Harmon! There's Nick Offerman! There's Joe Manganiello! There's that guy who played that nerd in Buffy! All of these cameos almost make bits of Knight of Cups feel like a Woody Allen movie—until you remember that while Allen cranks out a movie a year, Knight of Cups is Malick's seventh in 43 years.
But Malick's filmography is an unfuckwithable argument for quality over quantity. Those seven films—including Knight of Cups—are remarkable, evocative experiences, from his more plot-focused early work, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), to his sprawling, impressionistic efforts in The Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012). Part of why Malick's films are so challenging is because they don't have any analogues: Nobody else is able (or willing) to strike such a balance between beauty (it's nearly impossible not to be gobsmacked by the visuals) and philosophy (it's also nearly impossible not to be overwhelmed by the melancholy of existence).
But Knight of Cups does something different than the director's previous movies: It blurs the line between reality and fiction, between personas we already know and those that have been invented for the film. Antonio Banderas in Knight of Cups is clearly playing Antonio Banderas, just as Dan Harmon acts just like Dan Harmon. We see these people's faces, and hear their voices, and know who they are. Yet our focus remains on Christian Bale, who isn't playing Christian Bale—he's Rick, a screenwriter stumbling through Los Angeles's sun-drenched purgatory, his path intersecting with girlfriends and exes (played by Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Imogen Poots, and Teresa Palmer) and his troubled family (Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Cherry Jones). Over it all floats the disembodied voice of Ben Kingsley, offering cryptic pronouncements, as Malick slices his film into chapters titled after tarot cards: "The Moon," "The Hanged Man," "The High Priestess," "The Tower," "Knight of Cups."
If this sounds confusing and goofy, well... yeah. Leaning hard into Malick's trend toward abstraction, Knight of Cups—which deals with things as tangible as sex and earthquakes, but also spends time in orbit, watching auroras twist across the surface of the earth—can feel like watching Malick try to out-Malick Malick. True, Knight of Cups might not be for everybody—hell, it definitely won't be for everybody—but for those of us who have followed Malick this far, it can feel like nothing less than a gift.