James Franco is beginning to resemble the Berlinale’s bad luck charm. After grimacing his way through Werner Herzog’s risibly melodramatic Queen of the Desert, he can now be found sleepwalking through Everything Will Be Fine, Wim Wenders’ bizarre 3D picture centred on the fallout from a tragic accident. Offering a heavy-lidded, world weary turn as a man seemingly feeling nothing, it’s unclear as to whether the actor is perfectly in-sync with his character or simply disengaging from Wenders’ relentlessly stodgy melodrama.
Here Franco plays Tomas, a Canadian novelist with writer’s block, who has locked himself away in a snowbound cabin in order to complete his latest book. When his drive home is interrupted by two sledging children, a horrific accident ensues, after which nothing will ever be the same, etc. The tension contained within the scene in which Tomas walks one child back to their mother’s house is impressively wrought. But the general reticence that undercuts the film’s opening ten minutes promptly resumes’, making the accident itself as much of an aberration to Wenders’ film as it seems to be for its lead character.
The meat on the bones of the film should presumably be the ability to build a happy life whilst burdened by guilt. But Everything Will Be Fine constantly sidesteps this dramatic nub. Throughout an almost undifferentiated 12 year story arc, partners played by Rachel McAdams and Marie-Josee Croze act as a Greek Chorus to Tomas’ emotional chill. But with the film’s opening scenes establishing Tomas’ tentative personal engagement, the accident comes off as an event that has no affect on its protagonist’s life. Attempts to pierce his armour thereafter fall flat, with an (unintentionally) hilarious suicide attempt – shot by Wenders as a fisheye lens montage of Franco glugging hooch, and desperately tearing at his notebook – merely acting as a bizarre footnote. Seemingly without consequence, it strikes a discordant note in a film seemingly about the past weighing on the present.
Tomas’ status as a writer, meanwhile, is a distant abstraction rather than a window into his struggle. At one point quizzed by the dead boy’s mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as to his opinion on Faulkner, Tomas glibly replies that he doesn’t especially like writers. This supposed reflection on isolation instead lands as an absurd lack of willingness to engage with anything as complex as character; not to mention a gag about Franco’s own widely derided Faulkner adaptations. That Tomas’ sudden scholarly productivity goes unexplored also begs the question as to whether his angst really stems from a child’s death, as opposed to the absence of his third novel. It could be the study of a rampant egomaniac, if it were not for the presence of Gainsbourg – all forgiveness and spiritual healing – making it plain that this isn’t Wenders intention here.
Hopes for an enlightening third act are also disappointed; the eventual arrival of a grown up Christopher, disturbed by memories of his brother’s death, only briefly threatening to upset Tomas’ balance, and offer the film a sense of purpose. Like Wenders’ perplexing use of 3D, heavy handed musical cues, and ineffectual supporting characters, it merely serves to further muddle this fuggy, incoherent drama. To quote one memorable line, this is a film that could do with “cracking up a little.” Instead, by closing with a vaguely smug, ham fisted hint at resolution, it simply begs the question: yes, everything will be fine; but for God’s sake, why?