"Wendy and Lucy" has parlayed 80 minutes about a woman looking for a dog into more top 10 lists than just about any movie released last year.
Many critics, in fact, hailed it as the year's best motion picture. In its humble surface, they see all manner of social ailments diagnosed, and catastrophes forecast - the coming Depression, our lives as hobos and shoplifters, etc.
Michelle Williams is Wendy, a drifter trying to keep her beat-up Honda alive long enough to make it to Alaska. Wendy sleeps in her car, or warms herself around campfires ringed with fellow wanderers, who tell her there's good money to be made in the cannery industry up north.
Wendy circles the destination on her map, but her car breaks down in small-town Oregon - fixing it would cost her more than her life savings, only a few hundred dollars.
This grim news is delivered by the town mechanic (Will Patton), whose callousness is typical of the heartless face the world presents to Wendy. She's found herself in a town without pity, without much of anything - it's shabby and unfriendly (her lone ally is a kindly security guard).
Wendy thinks it can't get worse, but it does - she loses her beloved dog Lucy, and spends a few forlorn days trudging through the empty town, calling Lucy's name, slouching past rundown buildings spray-painted with illegible writing.
These visuals are presented with nonchalance, as if they are found images, but they feel constructed - more than once director Kelly Reichardt makes sure to include an invalid riding along in a motorized wheelchair.
It's an arranged dystopia, like something out of David Lynch, and it made me feel reichardt was a little too eager to make sure that all of Wendy's luck is bad. And a little too coy about what brought poor Wendy to Oregon with a few hundred bucks and a dog.
Downsized? A screw-up? "Wendy and Lucy" suggests that it doesn't matter, that a proper safety net or a compassionate society should protect Wendy either way (it's a pointed irony that Lucy actually fares better than her owner).
Don't look for compassion here, and there's no big rock candy mountain. It's like "Sullivan's Travels," without the sense of humor. Director Reichardt's gone looking for misery, and she's found it. ("O Lucy, Where Art Thou?")
What Sullivan found, though, was a nation of people desperate for a laugh. Relentlessly solemn movies like "Wendy and Lucy" are why recession-plagued Americans paid $33 million last week to see "Paul Blart, Mall Cop." *