Wim Wenders’ first fiction feature since 2000’s “The Million Dollar Hotel,” rocky but respectable “Land of Plenty” proves the helmer often does better with low budgets, fast schedules and young collaborators. Slushy final 10 minutes nearly trashes with triteness the good work that precedes it. However, the story of a paranoid Vietnam vet (John Diehl) and his liberal missionary niece (Michelle Williams) who was raised abroad tries to open thoughtful dialogue contrasting U.S. and international attitudes to 9/11. Mixed reception for the Lido premiere augurs Toronto trouble ahead, but Euro auds probably will smile more kindly on it than Statesiders.
The most Yankophilic of the New German Cinema generation, Wenders has had since the beginning of his career a jones for U.S. culture, particularly its music, landscapes and above all its movies, saluted with winning, youthful romanticism in his early work. But battered by unhappy work experiences Stateside (starting with 1982’s “Hammett”) and, like so many left-leaning Euro exile artists, ambivalent about the perceived insularity in both American cultural and political life, Wenders has cast an increasingly critical eye on the land he still loves in such movies as “Paris, Texas” and “The End of Violence.”
Ever the idealist, Wenders tries clumsily in “Land of Plenty” to help heal the breach between the two cultures, which seems further widened by reactions to the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Thus, the pic’s two leads feel a bit like pawns maneuvered into place by genre plot mechanics for a final dialectic debate.
Physically and mentally damaged by experiences in Vietnam, self-appointed homeland security agent Paul (Diehl) lives out of a van and spends his time combing the streets of Los Angeles looking for possible terrorist activity with his abundant spyware while listening to right-wing shock jocks. His Christian niece Lana (Williams) arrives from Palestinian territory, where she’s been partly raised, to work at a homeless mission and find Paul so she can deliver a last letter from her late mother, from whom Paul was long estranged.
Lana finds Paul easily enough, but has trouble getting him to deal with her until she offers to help with his investigation into the drive-by killing of a Middle Eastern homeless man she knew from the shelter. Paul suspects he was part of a terrorist cell. Search for truth takes the odd couple on a road trip to Death Valley community of Trona, Calif., destination in Wenders’ half-reel contribution to compilation pic “Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet.”
Climax of “Land of Plenty” involves Lana and Paul settling down to compare notes about what they were doing that fateful autumn day three years ago. Paul, suffering from a surfeit of empathy, is haunted by nightmares of the Twin Towers collapsing and feels convinced his manic ministrations could prevent another atrocity. Lana recalls that the day they fell, she heard cheering in the streets of Ramallah.
The exchange convinces dramatically, but subsequent saccharine scenes coopt Ground Zero into the journey for a would-be healing moment that goes too far over the top into whimsy.
Such a tacky conclusion is all the more a shame because until this point, pic isn’t half-bad — not exactly “Wings of Desire,” but on a watchable par with “The End of Violence.”
Engaging perfs keep its motor running, with Williams in particular charming and convincing as a politically engaged humanist. Normally a character actor, Diehl is fine, although he doesn’t always fill the screen in a part that feels written for a Chris Cooper or Sam Shepard type.
Other highlights include a standout soundtrack that mixes scratchy, quasi-Radiohead original tunes by Thom (aka Thomas Hanreich, formerly of indie group Vivid) with Leonard Cohen back-catalog numbers such as “The Land of Plenty,” which seemingly inspired the title.
Richly colored lensing, beautifully corrected and executed entirely with handheld digital cameras by newcomer Franz Lustig, also impresses, creating a flattened effect that gives the pic a jaunty, comicbook quality.