Wim Wenders' "Land of Plenty" offers a thoughtful look at a post-9/11 United States from one of its most caring longtime observers, an artist whose vision of America can record terrible socioeconomic inequity, ignorance and paranoia yet somehow remain warm and embracing. Hampered by an ending that overreaches needlessly, the film is nevertheless worthy and unmistakably the effort of an enduringly distinctive and important filmmaker.
Having grown up in Africa as the daughter of American missionaries and having lived on the West Bank, Lana (Michelle Williams) at 20 returns to the U.S. to accept a job at a mission on L.A.'s skid row. A devout Christian, Lana is eager to serve rather than to judge. She fits in immediately and starts pursuing another goal, to track down her only relative, her mother's brother Paul, a Vietnam War veteran long estranged from her parents. Ironically, he is actually nearby. A Green Beret shot down in Vietnam at the age of 18 and increasingly suffering from the psychological effects of dioxin poisoning, Paul (John Diehl) was so traumatized by 9/11 that he has become a self-appointed surveillance agent, operating out of his heavily equipped — and armed — van.
Lana locates Paul through his only friend (Richard Edson), but Paul is slow to acknowledge her. The street shooting of a Middle Eastern man (Shaun Toub) who took his meals at the mission brings Lana and Paul together to investigate his killing. Paul imagines the victim was part of a terrorist conspiracy, and although Lana does not accept this view, she accompanies Paul to Trona in the Mojave Desert to seek out the dead man's brother (Bernard White).
Wenders first used downtown L.A. settings in his initial American film, "Hammett" (1982), and shot "The Million Dollar Hotel" (2000), a reverie about the eccentric, lost guests of a shabby once-grand hostelry, in the original Rosslyn at 5th and Main. "Land of Plenty" has its own poetic quality but offers an unsparing look at the "Hunger Capital" of America, with its legions of skid row homeless.
The journey to Trona, which allows Lana to try to break through Paul's right-wing paranoia, culminates in a highly affecting series of events and leads unfortunately to another journey. (Wenders should have quit while he was ahead, for the culmination of the trip to Trona affords a natural, aptly tentative finish.)
The quietly lovely Williams and the rugged Diehl prove to be actors of much appeal and presence, and Wenders provides fine moments from Wendell Pierce and Burt Young as the operators of the mission, and from Gloria Stuart as a resilient Trona shut-in. There's also a cameo from Christa Lang.
"Land of Plenty's" title can be taken ironically, of course, yet there's something comforting about a film that has not lost all hope for America.
'Land of Plenty'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult themes, too intense for children
An IFC Films presentation. Director Wim Wenders. Producers In-Ah Lee, Samson Mücke, Gary Winick, Jake Abraham. Screenplay by Michael Meredith and Wenders; from a story by Wenders and Scott Derric