While it may sound like one of the platitudes that James Franco‘s character is accused of delivering at one point, the title of Wim Wenders‘ new film “Every Thing Will Be Fine” contains a clue to its approach and it’s in that space between “Every” and “Thing.” This is very much a film about Things —not objects, not any particular thing, but Things. Characters wonder how Things are going. They worry Things are not working out. They ask how Things are with each other. They wish they could make Things better. They lament the fact they want different Things. And when they have no other recourse to explain events, they blame Things for doing what Things do: happening.
Some of the Things that happen over the course of the decade or so the film spans are as follows: Tomas (Franco) is already having trouble with his girlfriend Sara (Rachel McAdams) in the course of struggling to write a novel, when on the way home one evening, he’s involved in an accident that brings him into the orbit of a single mother Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her young son Christopher. We follow the fallout of that accident in the short term, as Tomas’ guilt spurs a breakup and a spiral into depression, and in the long term, as the film skips forward ungracefully three times via intertitles: 2 years later, 4 years later, 4 years later. Over the course of that time, we observe Tomas publishing more novels to increasing acclaim and form another relationship with Anna (Maria-Josee Croze) who has a daughter, while Christopher (Robert Naylor) grows into a gently troubled young man in an isolated house with his illustrator mother.
The diffuseness of this approach, which largely springs from Bjorn Olaf Johannessen‘s sadly one-note script, accounts for the film’s lack of urgency, but a patient viewer could consider Wenders’ craft and the solid if muted performances worth the price of admission, though not if there’s a 3D surcharge. The idea of shooting an intimate human drama in 3D is interesting but ends up adding nothing, bar making Benoit Debie‘s photography feel muddier and dimmer in a film already rendered in a low-contrast palette of browns and greys. But the music does help things along, as Alexandre’s Desplat’s largely orchestral, strings-led score often brings notes of almost Hermann-esque intrigue and mystery to scenes that otherwise lie there flatly.
It’s clear that the film is attempting a novelistic approach, and the foregrounding of the writer character as the center of the drama recalls Philip Roth, while in terms of the struggles and rewards of creating fiction it also forces parallels between Tomas and Wenders himself, who has not made a narrative feature since 2007’s “Palermo Shooting” (though we discover very little of the nature of Tomas’ work). But this is one slow-ass “novel,” in which no one ever cracks a joke and potentially melodramatic moments (a fairground ride collapse, the initial accident, a suicide attempt) are so painstakingly crafted to avoid splashiness that any momentum is killed. A little splashiness would have been most welcome.
And there are other problems: the women are mercilessly sidelined. We never learn what Sara does; Anna is a presence rather than a person in all but a scene or two; and Kate (whose name we’re not sure we ever actually hear) is entirely defined by her isolation and then by her grief (though there is some meta pleasure to be gleaned from the scene where Franco expresses ambivalence about the works of William Faulkner, and they watch one of his books burn. Anyone who witnessed Franco’s immolation of “The Sound and the Fury” may arch an eyebrow).
But even underwritten or oddly accented (not sure why McAdams had to speak in anything but her normal voice), the performances are decent, as they should be as no one’s being asked to play too far outside their wheelhouse. Franco’s half-lidded somnolence actually suits Tomas’ life-of-the-mind remove, while Gainsbourg wears grief as naturally as McAdams wears subtle, supportive disappointment. Towards the end, the film starts to take some mildly interesting turns with Christopher’s reappearance. But it’s just too late: by then enervation has set in and the 3D glasses are weighing heavy on the nose.
The real issue is that Tomas is just not that riveting a character, and his arc of change is pretty minute. It seems like all these Things happen to remind him not to be the kind of dick who, in response to a slap, says stuff like “I understand your anger but there’s no need to demean yourself.” A final misjudged moment of pat resolution as a certain tear rolls down a certain cheek is the last nail in the coffin —it feels inexcusable that we’ve taken this long a way round to get to … here. Then again, that all of this human misery, all these murmured conversations and all of these women trooping in and out of his life would be summoned solely to assist in one successful midlife white male’s self-actualization process, is just one of those Things, I guess. [C]