German directors mesmerized by Americana have often done wonderful things. Consider Munich’s Percy Adlon. His eccentric 1987 “Baghdad Café” delivered a portly German woman who runs a diner on a desert highway near Las Vegas. Adlon kept it small. So did compatriot Wim Wenders, who used tightly wound “Paris, Texas” to portray loss and redemption. Winder’s second American effort chucks away that hard-earned intimacy like so much confetti, opting instead for a sprawling meditation on paranoia using Hollywood and Los Angeles as foils.
Bill Pulmann is Mike Max, a schlock action movie mogul whose digital lifestyle is superficial to the core. Soon after receiving a mysterious email revealing a government surveillance project, he’s kidnapped. Mike will soon be humbled and transmogrified, his identity turned on end. The surveillance project is the brainchild of one Ray Bering (Gabriel Byrne), a NASA-trained computer contractor with an ominous plan to end street violence through satellite imagery. “Real” seeing means complete coverage, ending privacy as we know it. To add existential import to Bering’s project, Wenders situates his spy-game installation atop an astronomical observatory overlooking the city.
Wenders prettily pushes his camera from story line to story line eager to bleed meaning from a disjointed pastiche and hoping Hollywood caricatures oblige his appetite for implicit conspiracies. There are disenchanted wives, rappers, stuntwomen starlets, molesters, and cops who admit action movies made them what they are. Many are the insider references, both to American art and moviemaking; little does it matter. A kitchen sink effort to crack the code of Hollywood zeitgeist, this has all the tools but none of the character.