Knockoff

A German New Waver resorts to tired old tricks

We've all done it — killed an afternoon drinking in a pleasantly grungy roadhouse, boozily enjoying the illusion of having fallen off the grid, playing semiforgotten blues songs on an outdated jukebox, and thinking aloud: See, I should capture this feeling. This should be a movie.

Sobered up, we don't make that movie, but Wim Wenders does. Having begun as the most austerely hip of the German New Wavers, Wenders quickly became besotted with American cliché culture, from trench-coat noir and road-movie outlawry to rockabilly and postwestern machismo, all of it commonly orchestrated with a whiskeyhead's dreary notion of cool and lousy sense of direction. In the last quarter-century, he blazed with propulsive originality twice — in 1984's Paris, Texas, which played to all of Wenders's touristy weaknesses and still emerged as a cohesive miracle, and Wings of Desire (1987), a sui generis, all-German masterpiece he has tried and failed to regenerate since. But otherwise Wenders has been lost in his fun house, and a crash festival of Until the End of the World, The End of Violence, The Million Dollar Hotel, Land of Plenty, and the new Don't Come Knocking would cure even Tom Waits of barroom whimsy for life.

Given such a run, you might suggest a return to the wellspring of his better films, script-wise, but that is what Wenders has done: Don't Come Knocking was written by playwright/character actor Sam Shepard, but unlike Paris, Texas, this project meanders through predictable and emotionally undemanding territory, with Shepard himself grumping up center stage as a menopausal jerk searching for meaning we're never sure is there. Shepard's hero, a leathery cowboy actor named Howard Spence, defects from a desert movie set (shooting, in 2006, what looks like an entirely anachronistic John Ford-style oater) and a blind-driving lifestyle of booze, dope, and fan-boffing.

Some American film critics just don't understand Wim Wenders
Some American film critics just don't understand Wim Wenders

With a buttoned-down private detective (Tim Roth) rather slackly on his tail, the uncommunicative and vaguely motivated Spence heads to his mother's house in Nevada, where, despite the warm, practical presence of Eva Marie Saint, he finds no solace — feel the momentum! — but does discover, as if you didn't see it coming, that a waitress he knocked up more than two decades earlier had a son he's never met. It's Broken Flowers, with bourbon and ten-gallons and meta-country soundtrack warbles. Middle-age men in movies have apparently little else to fuel their actions nowadays besides the prospect of hunting down lost offspring.

So on to Butte (in a vintage Olds, no less), where the strangely stiff-faced barmaid (Jessica Lange) gives him a hard time; his New-Wave, Elvis-like, Chris Isaak-toned club singer son (Gabriel Mann) spits in his eye; and a nurturing young woman (Sarah Polley) who carries an urn of her mother's ashes everywhere (she talks to it, too, like Warren Oates growling at Alfredo Garcia's severed head) suggests she's his kid too. Why stop there? With five or six more fatherless twentysomethings filling up the movie's arid locales, it could've been a comedy.

But Don't Come Knocking, like most of Wenders's films, skirts being camp only by being lifeless. As it is, we've got an hour or so left, as Spence pleads with virtually everyone to give him some kind of chance and loiters around town contemplating ... what? Giving up being a Hollywood icon and becoming a Montana barfly? Eventually he more or less surrenders to inertia in the movie's most stirring sequence: On an abandoned couch on a dead-end street, Spence sits still for what passes for 24 hours, as the low-rent neighborhood around him flits by, dogs keep him company, and Wenders's camera indulges in a slow series of circular pans. By its very structure, the scene evokes a sense of a living, breathing reality outside of the character's, and Wenders' pop-culture narcissism, and it pops your eyes open.

But that's it for early-Shepardian set pieces. What all of this has to do with moviemaking, stardom, substance abuse, paternity, middle age, Montana, or America, I could not say. Wenders clearly doesn't think in those terms; he longs to make narrative-film choices the way a jazz guitarist chooses licks: capriciously, hunting for grooviness, even if the attempt imbues his work with the personality of a manic, blissfully hungover Beat poet playing dressup.

 
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