There’s something amiss in the opening moments of “Every Thing Will Be Fine.” Set to a mildly spooky strings-and-piano piece by Alexandre Desplat, the sequence suggests an old-fashioned murder mystery to such a degree that when the film’s title finally fades in, it feels like a false promise.
Despite variations of the eponymous phrase being uttered no less than three times in its opening ten minutes, everything isn’t fine in Wim Wenders’s latest feature, in which a fatal accident connects and haunts a number of people across the decade that follows.
Tomas (James Franco) is a novelist who, driving home from work one snowy afternoon, knocks down and kills a boy out sledging with his brother. Surviving a suicide attempt soon after, Tomas ends his childless relationship with long-suffering Sara (Rachel McAdams) and, years later, moves in with Ann (Marie-Josée Croze) and her daughter Mina. Returning to the site of the accident, he also befriends the victim’s mother Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and, eventually, her surviving son Christopher (Robert Naylor). All the while, his writing career takes off, seemingly renewed by his harrowing experience. Eagle-eyed viewers will note that one of Tomas’s novels is called “Nowhere Man,” a nod to the 2008 Belgian feature written by this film’s scriptwriter Bjørn Olaf Johannessen.
“Every Thing Will Be Fine” unfolds by means of an elliptical timeframe; frequent fades conclude scenes at incongruous junctures; dialogue exchanges seem designed primarily to retain an opaque air rather than further character. On a better day this might have recalled Atom Egoyan at his peak — the wintry setting and the latent traumas sparked by an extraordinary incident certainly bring “The Sweet Hereafter” to mind. But the creative choices of Wenders and co. have resulted here in a work that sadly invites derision. Guffaws rang out at several points in the first press screening at the Berlin International Film Festival, which also concluded with a damningly tokenistic applause.
It’s an unfortunate irony that Wenders has made a film that plays out like another director’s misguided English-language remake more than a genuine product. On this evidence, newcomers would, if asked, presume the 69-year-old German made “City of Angels” and not, in fact, “Wings of Desire” — with the former work’s maudlin sun replaced here by a humorless chill. But perhaps it’s unfair to hold a director up to the same standards as past successes, and at a certain point it’s difficult to write about a misfire of this order without the criticisms sounding like prejudices. Nevertheless, the film begs questions.
It’s possible that “Every Thing Will Be Fine” is understated to a fault, that excavating its deeper meanings is deliberately impeded rather than enabled by its gently casual vibe. A laughably wooden leading turn from Franco isn’t anything to voice disappointment in these days, but the extent to which his monotonous laziness infects the rest of the picture suggests catastrophically low expectations on his director’s part. Indeed, while the measure of a filmmaker can often be the performances she elicits from younger cast members, it has to be said here that those by Robert Naylor as 17-year-old Christopher and Lilah Fitzgerald as Ann’s daughter Mina are shockingly flat — was it that uninspiring to perform opposite Franco?
These problems are compounded by the decision to have McAdams deliver her lines in some indiscernibly foreign accent, while Gainsbourg is essentially reduced to vacant looks in the distance, croaking through her dialogue as Kate draws still life illustrations to pass the days. This latter detail is one of several whose inclusion is distracting more than insightful. In addition, a “something in the air” brand of superstition rears its head, when Kate sees a connection between writing a nametag into her dead son’s jacket days before he died, while Tomas seems to somehow foresee a freak fairground accident much later in the film.
Nothing much is made of these things, and they find as much narrative justification as Wenders’s curious decision to shoot in 3D for a film that couldn’t be further removed from image-based spectacle. Speculating about, say, single-mother Kate’s apparently self-sustained financial situation provides ample food for thought in an otherwise numbingly provoke-free drama.
Perhaps the most incongruous scene of all, though, is that in which Tomas walks Mina home from school one day, along a rural river path. Their conversation revolves around a word Tomas had brought to Mina’s attention at an earlier point that is overused and literally meaningless in everyday conversation. On first inspection that word seems to be “like,” for Mina seems to make a point of, like, saying it as often as she, like, can. But upon reflection, the word could also be “fine” — the go-to adjective that encompasses all our emotional states, whether fraught, joyous or even bereft. Indeed, a fine film!
“Every Thing Will Be Fine” premiered this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.