“We can only try to believe that there’s meaning to this,” murmurs Charlotte Gainsbourg midway through “Every Thing Will Be Fine” — voicing viewers’ thoughts for the first and only time in Wim Wenders’ labored, lumbering melodrama. An inglorious return to narrative filmmaking for the German master, this protracted study in grief and forgiveness does little to suggest his time hasn’t been better spent making documentaries for the past seven years. Imprisoning James Franco in the role of an emotionally constipated writer taking 10 years to process a fatal car accident, “Fine” is unlikely to arouse much empathy from auds, who may instead spend most of the running time wondering why Wenders chose to dramatize these dingy proceedings in advanced 3D. Despite this arthouse novelty and a name cast, the conviction of the title will not be shared by distributors.
Coming from many other veteran auteurs, a film as tone-deaf and structurally haphazard as “Every Thing Will Be Fine” — no explanation is given, incidentally, for the title’s irksome spacing — would sound an alarming career alert. Coming from Wenders, freshly Oscar-nominated for his gleaming, gorgeous Sebastiao Salgado tribute “The Salt of the Earth,” this unfortunate diversion merely suggests that the creative instincts and impulses that once yielded the marvelous likes of “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire” have shifted permanently to the realm of nonfiction; after all, 2008’s oddly conceived meta-thriller “Palermo Shooting” likewise found him firing on precious few cylinders.
There was reason to hope that Wenders’ extension of his recent 3D fascination — so inventively applied in “Pina” — to narrative film would at least make for an arresting curio. Yet the overriding visual inertia of “Fine” seems almost perverse, as if the helmer had specifically challenged himself to make the least propulsive spectacle in the history of the medium’s whizziest accessory. While Wenders has argued intelligently in interviews for the merits of realizing character-driven drama in three dimensions, this isn’t the most helpful case-maker — not least because Norwegian writer Bjorn Olaf Johannessen’s screenplay has barely been rendered in two.
It’s not that Wenders’ aptitude for the technology is entirely invisible here: He and ace d.p. Benoit Debie play striking games here and there with planes and perspective, often layering action within a single frame via glass reflections. Such occasional intricacy of technique, however, serves only to further distance viewers from these dully aloof characters and their vaguely articulated problems.
Franco’s chronically mopey novelist Tomas isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs before tragedy strikes in the pic’s first act. Fighting creative blockage, he sequesters himself for much of the day in a poky, snowbound outhouse near his home in Oka, Quebec, much to the consternation of his broody, increasingly impatient girlfriend, Sara, played by Rachel McAdams. (Poor McAdams, sporting sensible hair and a truly mystifying cod-Continental accent, continues her thankless run of needy, tossed-aside love interests in big-name auteur projects; grouped with her roles in “Midnight in Paris” and “To the Wonder,” it’s tempting to imagine she’s playing the same woman at slightly different life stages.)
Tomas’ situation worsens considerably when, driving in a blinding blizzard, he runs over the young son of illustrator and single mother Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg), at least managing to save the boy’s older brother Christopher (Jack Fulton). Kate, a melancholic, God-fearing soul, is distraught but ultimately bears her son’s accidental killer no ill will; Tomas, on the other hand, finds it harder to forgive himself, leaving Sara and going into a psychological tailspin that culminates in an idle suicide attempt. Thus is the stage set for a decade-spanning survey of emotional catharsis and self-confrontation, effectively dropping in on Tomas every few years to check if everything (or, indeed, every thing) is fine yet.
No prizes for guessing that it’s generally not. Despite the growing success of his writing career and a grounding relationship with publishing assistant Ann (Marie-Josee Croze), Tomas is unable to stay away from the scene of the crime, either in his mind or in person. While our man sporadically enjoys glumly long-winded, platitude-ridden conversations with Kate on the nature of guilt and acceptance, Christopher quietly grows up with self-consuming baggage of his own. There’s material here for chamber drama of a substantial, slow-burning order, but Johannessen’s stiff, stubbornly humorless script only scatches the surface of its own dramatic quandaries, diagnosing its characters in the glibbest terms possible. “I have a lot of issues,” announces one character. “Neither of us is fine,” observes another. A film that purposefully set out to parody the earnest First World miserablism of Susanne Bier could hardly do a better job.
The unvaryingly morose tone of events, coupled with the circular nature of the characters’ interactions, makes it difficult to keep track of the pic’s lurching chronology, despite the recurrence of scene-setting title cards. (The consistency of the actors’ styling and costuming doesn’t help in this regard: Franco’s literary success may net him a new companion and a spiffy house in the suburbs, but he remains doggedly faithful to one fraying, slate-colored blazer.) Mostly required simply to jog in place with their feelings, Wenders’ capable cast is afforded little room to impress — though, as the older Christopher, Canadian teen Robert Naylor exudes a certain malevolent intensity in the pic’s later stages. As for his mother, Sara’s maternal despair and woodland cabin seem deliberately conceived to recall Gainsbourg’s bravura role in Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” minus the deranged dramatic payoff.
Debie, best known for his work with Gaspar Noe and Harmony Korine, contributes solemnly handsome, thoughtfully composed lensing, though perhaps the 3D application is partially responsible for his uncharacteristically taupe-dominated palette. Other tech credits are as skilled as one would expect from a Wenders production, if not always tonally sympathetic to the film around them: A busy orchestral score by the ubiquitous Alexandre Desplat swirls with symphonic fury around most scenes, as if feverishly searching for some action to score.