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Friday, Dec. 9, 2005

'SCATHING CRITIQUE' BACKFIRES

Von Trier shoots himself in foot



Dear Wendy

Rating: * (out of 5)
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: English
Opens Dec. 10
[See Japan Times movie listings]

How's this for a movie idea: A bunch of introverted American teens in a rural, blue-collar mining town form a club called "The Dandies" for, ahem, "pacifists with guns." They dress like New Romantic fops, address their guns by name, study the logistics of bullet penetration, hold poetry readings and, in the end, all get gunned down in a climactic, "Wild Bunch"-esque finale where they take on a small army of cops in order to -- take a deep breath -- deliver a pot of coffee to an elderly black woman.

News photo
Gun-toting cast members of "Dear Wendy"

Did I mention this is all meant as a scathing critique of U.S. gun culture, racism and repressed sexuality? The mind reels at the prospect, but perhaps if I drop the name Lars von Trier here, it will start to make sense. Danish director von Trier has been making a career of late with Yank-bashing films like "Dancer in the Dark," "Dogville" and the forthcoming "Manderlay." No one ever seems to point out the simple fact that von Trier's depictions of the United States -- however politically correct the topics may be -- bear even less relation to any sort of objective reality than the oft-decried Hollywood depictions of Japan.

"Dear Wendy," the film in question here, was scripted by von Trier, but turned over to his fellow Dogma 95 conspirator, Thomas Vinterberg ("Festen"), to direct, and it's more of the same-old same-old.

There's a kernel of an idea here in "Dear Wendy" -- that sexual impotence is sublimated into the virility of packing heat -- but the U.S. that Vinterberg and Von Trier propose is so ludicrously a projection of arty/lefty Euro-fantasy that it's impossible to engage with.

Take the set-up: Moody Dick (Jamie Bell) grows up a loner in a small mining town conspicuously covered with American flags. The first thing that strikes you as odd is that Dick's mine-working, blue-collar dad could afford a maid -- black, of course -- to raise his son. Mine-workers don't generally employ servants, but of course that reality doesn't impose itself on the fevered minds of the filmmakers, who instead want to throw a black servant in there to accent America's racism. Dick buys a small antique pistol in a curio store and finds that carrying it on his person makes him more outgoing and confident. His supermarket coworker, Stevie (Mark Webber), also packs -- a World War II-era Luger -- and together the two create a shooting range in an abandoned mine. They recruit other losers to join their club, but, as pacifists, they insist that carrying guns is only for "moral support." Killing, which Dick will only refer to as "loving," is forbidden. The Dandies, as they call themselves, wear frilly lace shirts, pink-trimmed women's coats and silk scarves, and even hold a parade in the town square. Now, the odds of this happening in any flag-waving rural American town without a hummer's worth of townies arriving to kick their asses are exactly zero. But again, welcome to von Trier-land.

Even more ludicrous plot twists pile up: Dick starts writing letters to his gun, which he calls "Wendy" -- he develops a telepathic rapport with his gun which allows him to shoot bullseyes with his eyes closed.

Vinterberg gives us many shots of Dick caressing his gun with a look on his face like he's enjoying a sexual favor. Some sort of pinnacle of stupidity is reached when Dick goes to console Susan (Alison Pill), the gangs' sole female member, on the death of her mother. Rather than being sad, however, she's ecstatic, and unbuttons her shirt to show Dick how much her breasts have grown since she's started carrying a gun.

It's at this point that your average viewer will most likely recognize that this is a movie made by a total prat about a bunch of pretentious prats for an audience of such prats -- the only people who would buy such a sophomoric, baseball-bat-subtle critique of Big Bad Charlton Heston America.

For parody to work, there has to be a reasonable basis in reality to riff off of, and that's sorely lacking here. Some have compared this to "Clockwork Orange," but that film was more consistent in its tone, more comfortably set in a fictional future, and -- last but not least -- directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Vinterberg could have profitably learned from Kubrick's black humor and swaggering stylization. As is, "Dear Wendy" remains an embarrassment to watch, and it's a relief when it's all over.



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