Don’t Come Knocking’

Director Wim Wenders has lost it.

It’s been evident for a while, but “Don’t Come Knocking” drives it home.

Handed a solid screenplay by Sam Shepard, who stars in the film and also wrote the still brilliant “Paris, Texas” (Wenders’ masterpiece), Wenders truly drops the ball.

“Don’t Come Knocking” has an excellent cast. Any time you can get Shepard, Tim Roth, Jessica Lange and Eva Marie Saint in the same picture, you should be golden, but “Don’t Come Knocking” is simply a bore. Moreover, Wenders seems unfocused, something that has troubled all of his recent cinematic efforts.

Based on the life of Howard Spence (Shepard), a burned-out ex-star actor who has done too many drugs, seen too many women and wrecked too many lives, the film meanders for two hours and never takes hold.

As the picture opens, Spence is seen riding off into the sunset on horseback, leaving behind a film-within-a-film that is in the process of being shot. It’s a promising start.

Commenting on the absurdity of the American cinematic cowboy in modern times, Spence leaves his crew high and dry as he attempts to piece his life back together.

Temporarily moving back in with his mother, played by Saint, who makes a welcome return to the screen, Spence has a plan to fix the chaos he made in his life. But his best intentions never materialize.

While being pursued by a tight-as-the-federal-government, tough-as-nails movie lawyer played by Roth, who is always a delight (and someone who could have given the film some serious spark if he had been included in more scenes), Spence learns from his mother that he fathered a son some 30 years ago. Setting off to Butte, Mont., to locate his lost offspring, Spence soon opens up a proverbial Pandora’s box of troubles and buried lies.

It’s a good premise. The problem is how Wenders delivers it.

Always skilled at capturing a location’s surrounding scenery and atmosphere, Wenders includes his fair share of gorgeous still shots – broken-down cars, dilapidated houses, factories, casinos, clouds, American flags adjacent to oil rigs – yet he is unable to convey and project the drama inherent in Shepard’s script.

Thirty minutes into the film, Spence’s quest feels lazy and not dramatic. Moreover, Spence’s son Earl, played by Gabriel Mann, is incredibly annoying and unconvincing. Part Nick Cave, part Chris Isaak wannabe, Mann drags his part down into the land of overacting and the absurd.

Fairuza Balk’s turn as Earl’s pain-in-the-ass, semi-artsy, ultra-annoying girlfriend doesn’t help. She’s like Parker Posey on a bad day.

There are scenes that stick in the mind though. And they only remind one of how kingly Wenders once was. In particular, one in which Spence, down on everything going on in his life, sits in the middle of a street on a discarded couch, as the sun fades and night sets in. Rotating the camera 360 degrees the entire time, Wenders stops time and floods the screen with potential. As a dog approaches and sits next to Spence, an ice-cream truck passes and an El Camino covered in mirrors drives by, and there is a brief moment when one thinks: “Wow, Wim Wenders is a true genius.”

Unfortunately for Wenders and “Don’t Come Knocking,” the moment quickly passes. It’s soon back to cliched acting and the syrupy slow unfolding of an outcome that is obvious from the second that Spence sets foot in Butte.

Rescuing “Don’t Come Knocking” is Lange, who turns in another terrific performance, this time as the woman with whom Spence momentarily coupled and then, just as quickly, discarded.

Age has only made Lange more believable, more sincere. She delivers her lines with a wonderful blend of simplicity and passion, in turn, making Shepard’s onscreen performance seem awkward and even embarrassing.

It was a nice thought: the re-teaming of Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard. With “Paris, Texas” the two delivered one of the true American cinematic masterpieces in the last 25 years. Shepard is one of the best and most unrecognized American playwrights of the late 20th century. And while Shepard can still write, and he always could, his onscreen acting is hazy and unbelievable. Add in Wenders’ tedious direction and you have a film that should have remained in the heads of its dreamers.