“The Sea of Trees” is another name for the Aokigahara forest in Japan, such a popular spot for suicides that some believe that the spirits of the dead linger there to trap unwary wanderers. Or perhaps to snare incautious filmmakers, as it’s also the setting for Gus Van Sant’s movie of the same name, a meditation on grief that’s more likely to inspire laughter than tears.
Bearing most of the blame, though, is screenwriter Chris Sparling, who sends Arthur (a maudlin Matthew McConaughey), an American mathematics professor, into the forest with a bottle of pills and mouthfuls of dolorous dialogue. There he encounters Takumi (Ken Watanabe, insultingly reduced to a spiritual prop), a lost and bleeding Japanese businessman who’s having second thoughts about self-destruction.
While the two navigate treacherous floods and occasional human remains, cliché-packed flashbacks supply the source of Arthur’s torment. Scenes from his fraught marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts), a high-functioning alcoholic with a low taste for aggrieved put-downs, interrupt his arboreal adventures and weepy monologues about love and loss.
Egged on by self-pitying plinks and moans on the soundtrack, the character soon sinks completely into a soggy swamp of platitudes.
Van Sant has always had a sentimental streak — reaching some kind of apogee with “Restless” in 2011 — but a better script might have replaced literalness with the emotional intelligence that the film badly needs. We do, however, have the consolations of Kasper Tuxen’s lush photography, which turns the forest into a damp green womb.
“You only have one life,” warns a sign at the entrance. “Take care of it.” That’s good advice for a career as well.
(At Barrywoods, Studio 28, Town Center.)
‘The Sea of Trees’
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:51.