One of my all-time favorite moments in a movie - a sublime instant when story, image, performance, the whole shebang, come together in a shudder of transcendence - is from Terrence Malick's 1973 lovers-on-the-run saga, Badlands. Sissy Spacek's freckled 15-year-old, Holly, is sitting in a car, the traveling companion to the James Dean-ian Kit, played by Martin Sheen - a cool, twentysomething psychopath for whom she's abandoned her school and home. He has been busy killing people, for no good reason, and she has been along for the ride.

There's a voice-over, as their deadly spree nears its end, with Spacek talking about how the two of them are drifting apart: "He needed me now more than ever, but something had come between us," she says. "I'd stopped even paying attention to him. Instead, I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of my mouth, where nobody could read them."

That was Malick's amazing debut, and he's deployed that same dreamy mix of voice-over, music and spiraling camerawork - the lens capturing the beautiful mysteries of the natural world - in all of his work since: Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998 - yup, 20 years between films!), The New World (2005), The Tree of Life (2011), To the Wonder (2012) and now in Knight of Cups.

But where Malick's voice-overs used to dovetail with his actors actually exchanging dialogue, just like a regular movie, increasingly the writer/director has been relying on the voice-overs to tell the story. Interior monologues abound.

In Knight of Cups, which stars Christian Bale as a Los Angeles screenwriter in the throes of existential crisis, the voice-overs ricochet in a kind of self-parodic free-for-all.

It starts with a sonorous quotation from John Bunyan's 17th-century spiritual allegory The Pilgrim's Progress then moves on to Bale, as the high-paid Hollywood wordsmith Rick, saying stuff such as, "All those years living the life of someone I didn't even know" as he shuffles moodily among his Venice Beach apartment, the studio backlots, rocky deserts, and fancy boutique hotels, where he cavorts with party girls and models and the girlfriend of the moment.

And there are many girlfriends, many moments: Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Natalie Portman, Isabel Lucas, and Teresa Palmer, here as a stripper on all fours in the purpley light of a strip club, telepathically musing to her guy, "You have a darkness in you. . . . Your mind's a theater. I say, 'Try it all.' "

Lap dance, anyone?

Rick's dad, played by Brian Dennehy, gets his turn(s) to mull inwardly, and Cate Blanchett, as Rick's physician ex-wife (she appears to be treating burn victims), gets hers.

Here's one Bale/Blanchett interior monologue volley:

He: "You gave me peace. You gave me what the world can't give. Mercy. Love. Joy. All else is mist, cloud."

She: "You're still the love of my life."

Me: Is Malick trying out for a greeting cards gig?

Knight of Cups - which takes its title from the Tarot and which takes a terribly long time to show us that being rich and successful doesn't necessarily mean being happy - has the elliptical, jump-cutty, across-the-universe feel that we've come to expect from the director of The Tree of Life (where he somehow pulled it all off) and To the Wonder (where he didn't).

I get that there is something inspirational about Beauty, and about mysterious, beautiful women. Painters, filmmakers, authors have been drawing creativity from their muses down through history. But Malick's lineup of fetching actresses walking through the chapters of his protagonist's life and the echo chambers of his mind are given so little in terms of character and motivation (and dialogue) that they are reduced to the worst kind of cliché. Victoria's Secret models are endowed with more inner life, and they're not muttering what Peter Matthiessen, who pops up in a Japanese garden to give Rick some wisdom, calls "the unsaid said."

Matthiessen, the celebrated writer, naturalist, and Zen master, died in 2014, shortly after Bale and Malick corralled him into this folly. Matthiessen has a wise, wrinkled, and wonderful face, and you want to sit at his feet and listen.

Sitting in the theater, watching Knight of Cups, you hear an incredible amount of thought-balloon babble, but you don't hear anything approaching the sublime.

srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629 @Steven_Rea