Dear Wendy

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/23/05 13:39:48

"All von Trier's Chillun Got Guns!"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” was an agonizingly pretentious chunk of faux-profundity that had exactly one idea–that America is a hypocritical place that thrives on walking all over the poor and downtrodden while piously claiming to be helping them–and pounded it out for three straight hours. Nevertheless, because it was an ambitious film that contained a great performance from Nicole Kidman, some intriguing ideas regarding its staging and a certain straightforwardness of purpose, it was a film that demanded a serious analysis even if, in the end, it didn’t deserve it. “Dear Wendy,” the latest work from the pen of von Trier, shares many of the same traits as “Dogville” but they are slapped together into such a bewildering mess that it can easily be dismissed as pretentious, one-note trash without anyone having to worry that they might be missing out on something.

Set in a rural American mining town that is no doubt right down the road from Dogville, the film stars Jamie Bell as Dick, a young man who, after the loss of his parents, is being raised by his black housekeeper Clarabelle (Novella Nelson). One day, Dick comes across an antique gun and becomes fascinated by it–frankly, he falls in love with the thing and even names it Wendy (the film’s narration is presented as a letter he is writing to Wendy)–despite his avowed claims of being a pacifist. With several like-minded friends (including Michael Angarano, Mark Webber and Alison Pill), he forms a club called the Dandies who outfit themselves in vintage clothes, practice target shooting in an abandoned mine and vow, among other things, that they will never draw their weapons.

That noble goal pretty much flies out the window when Sebastian (Danso Gordon), a relative of Clarabelle’s who has arrived in town after being paroled for shooting someone, is placed under the wing of the Dandies by the well-meaning but buffoonish sheriff (Bill Pullman in full hayseed manner). Because he is an outsider, because he has hurt people with a gun in the past and, well, because he is black, Dick feels that Sebastian may be a threat to the group and begins to act more and more irrational. Things come to a head when the group attempt to help Clarabelle (who has a fear of street gangs that may not exist) across the town square, only to have her whip a shotgun out of nowhere and kill someone in a paranoid fit of mistaken identity. I wouldn’t dream of revealing how things turn out but if you have seen a von Trier film before, you should have no idea figuring out that most of the cast is not going to be around for the unlikely sequel.<

There are a lot of problems with “Dear Wendy” but none as big as the simple fact that the basic premise simply doesn’t work–either as a straightforward story or as an allegory about America and its fascination with weapons. There are hints, I will admit, that the story is meant to be taken more along the lines of satire (most obviously in the musical choice during the final bloody shootout) but that approach doesn’t quite pan out either because of the heavy-handed direction from Thomas Vinterberg, who goes about his job as if no one got around to telling him which parts were serious and which were satiric and so he approached them all in the same broad and slightly exaggerated manner (the character of Clarabelle seems to have been partially inspired by the maid character in the old Tom & Jerry cartoons) that never quite jibes with what is going on. As for the accusations that von Trier is anti-American, I wouldn’t go that far–based on his work here, he seem to pretty much loathe and despise anyone who isn’t Lars von Trier.

There is a new movie out this weekend called “A History of Violence” by David Cronenberg that tackles several of the same issues as “Dear Wendy”–especially the notion that all people have the potential for violence in them and to deny that fact can be even more dangerous than accepting it–but treats them in a serious and thoughtful manner that doesn’t rely on such an outrageously absurd premise to make its points. “A History of Violence” is the work of a serious and thoughtful artist who has something important to say and the artistic skills to say it in a thought-provoking manner. “Dear Wendy,” on the other hand, is nonsense that is pitched at the level of obnoxious kids scribbling on the walls with crayons in a desperate bid for attention. If you see only one movie about the subject of man’s latent compulsion for violence this weekend, you should see “A History of Violence.” If you want to see two movies on that subject this weekend, you should see “A History of Violence” a second time instead of wasting time and energy on the likes of “Dear Wendy.”

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