The opening and closing sequences of "Every Thing Will Be Fine," the first
fiction feature from German director Wim Wenders in almost a decade, are among
the most masterful he’s created, and over the course of his long career he’s
created quite a few such scenes … and, more to the point, quite a few such whole
films. But bear with me.
The opening sequence sees young writer Tomas (James Franco)
seeking space to create in a fisherman’s hut on a frozen lake. Dispirited,
unproductive, he tools around on land a bit, having intermittent tetchy phone
conversations with his girlfriend Sara (Rachel McAdams). Driving in a snowstorm,
he’s distracted, and has an automobile mishap. He’s relieved to find a
completely intact, but very shaken up child propped right next to his front
bumper, and walks the boy to the remote farm house up the hill, from which he
was no doubt darting out with his plastic sled. Once they get to the house, the
other shoe drops when they meet the boy’s mother, Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
There’s almost no dialogue, only a calm command of cinema language, conjuring
suspense, dread and poignancy, enhanced by Wenders’ expressive use of 3D, a format he also used for his spectacular 2011 dance documentary “Pina.”
So far so good, at least as far as the movie is concerned.
Not so much for Tomas, who’s traumatized by the accident to the extent that he
checks out on life big time, ending in a hospital bed after what Sara
recognizes as a half-hearted suicide attempt. So, yes: this is a movie in which
James Franco plays a white, male, mostly-self-tortured artist, coping with a
major spiritual crisis. What could be worse?
In theory, I agree with you. And in practice, “Every Thing
Will Be Fine” wears a certain preciosity on its sleeve, starting with the
title, with its deliberately broken “Everything,” oy. One might suspect The New
Sincerity in action, except that Wenders has always been a one-hundred percent
sincere filmmaker, whether creating such acute stories of existential anxiety
as “The American Friend,” luminous, mysticism-laden parables of love like
“Wings of Desire,” or atrociously soft-headed meditations on being a man out of
time, as in his dire 2008 “Palermo Shooting,” his most recent fiction feature
and not a particularly good omen for this one.
“Every Thing Will Be Fine” is in a very real sense
thematically quaint, and too often the screenplay, by Bjørn Olaf Johannessen, is
spectacularly verbally maladroit, not to mention vague. “Neither of us is fine … we want different
things in life … I just want to write … ” is the sort of thing the performers have
to work with for the first half of the movie. As irritating as the commonplaces
are, and as distractingly bad as the dialogue gets, glints and glimmers of
perception and feeling find their way out from the 3D frame. Gainsbourg’s
single mom character, an illustrator, has a quiet, enigmatic dignity, and the
scenes at the center of the film between her and Franco seem to want to take
the narrative in a more expansive direction, away from the commonplace
solipsism of Tomas’ character, who by this point has moved on from Sara and
into a relationship with Maria Josée Croze’s Ann, herself the mother of a young
girl. The narrative, as it happens, moves across a span of twelve years, and
does go to some disturbing and unexpected places. Tomas’ encounter with Sara
many years after the fact is satisfying in a way the filmmakers perhaps did not
intend, but I can’t be too confident about that.
And Franco actually does mostly alright by his possibly
impossible character. His inspired work in “Spring Breakers” notwithstanding,
he’s been frittering away his credibility as a dramatic actor for some time, but given the lack of detail he’s got to work with here, he’s not a presence
you want to eye-roll off the screen. Although the point in the film at which
his performance needs to gather strength—a tense kitchen-table confrontation
with another male near the end—is exactly the point where he trots out his
stoner squint-and-smirk; not really the right choice. Elsewhere he’s
fine, and particularly fine when his character is called upon to examine his
own lack of affect.
“Every Thing Will Be Fine” is far from a perfect film. But
Wenders is trying to do new things within the confines of a pretty standard
European art-film scenario, and the viewer can see he’s not approaching the
material as though it’s rote; he’s really trying to use the camera to get
through the feelings of loss the characters suffer. Wenders is also the author
of a book of essays called “Emotion Pictures,” and he once again brings some
honor to that concept with this flawed but intriguing work.