New German Cinema legend Wim Wenders has always harbored a gushing, heartfelt reverence for American culture that, by turns naive and poignant (but never ironic), deeply suffuses his auteur touches, from obsessive landscape portraits to romantic, searching characters. Appropriate, then, that Wenders’ latest film is a post-9/11 meditation containing none of the bitter anger and violence of recent films by fellow Europeans like von Trier and Haneke. Initially, this doesn’t sound promising: if Land of Plenty turned out to be a slight, kooky disaster along the lines of Million Dollar Hotel, the last Wenders fiction feature, we would have a wasted opportunity on our hands. But as baffling as it is at moments, Land of Plenty proves otherwise. Wenders’ lightness of being is more than bearable; it’s downright emotionally intelligent.
Land of Plenty may be the first post-9/11 film to offer a picture of hyper-surveillance that’s as melancholic as it is paranoid. Those conflicting roots are embodied in Paul Jefferies (John Diehl), a mentally and physically scarred Vietnam vet who, after having his traumas reawakened on 9/11, spends his days waging a one man “war against terror” in Los Angeles from a decked-out van complete with spy camera and the constant chatter of right-wing radio. Paul’s story and that of his niece Lana (Michelle Williams), a peace-loving missionary returning from the West Bank to work at a homeless shelter, converge when the Muslim man Paul suspects of potential terrorist activities is mysteriously shot dead.
Wenders handles the quasi-thriller material surprisingly well, with a sense of buoyancy (Paul’s delusions are treated with gentle humor instead of condescension) as well as detail. Along the way Land of Plenty sometimes loses its focus, but it also makes interesting connections between the forgotten war on poverty and the sensationalist war on terror, and the legacy of Vietnam and current foreign policy. When Paul and Lana stand over Ground Zero after the obligatory Wenders road trip to simply “listen,” that’s the film’s Rorschach test — you’ll either scoff or feel genuinely moved. In either case Wenders confronts us with our wounds, however clumsily.