Wendy and Lucy opens with a tranquil, intimate scene of the title characters, a young woman and her dog, playing outdoors. Wendy (played by Michelle Williams) is the sort of woman you might see on the street — slender, medium height, short dark hair, jeans and T-shirt, wearing a vaguely wounded expression, with a shy, diffident manner, almost to the point of being affectless, but entirely benign and peaceful. Lucy, for her part, is a friendly, nondescript mutt.
The innocent title sequence gives way to something a bit sketchier. As night falls, Lucy runs ahead into the woods and Wendy catches up with her at a campfire where a group of potentially menacing neo-hobos are sitting around loudly bragging about their exploits. The mood of suppressed violence builds. We begin to wonder why Wendy is hanging out with them. Maybe she should think about heading home. But then she's back in her car, and we suddenly realize that her car is her home, that Wendy and Lucy are on the road — specifically, from Indiana to Alaska to find work in the canneries, and now they've come to rest, tentatively, somewhere in Oregon. Their money has just run out.
It's tempting to imagine that this ultra-naturalistic, hard-scrabble chronicle of a migrant-laboring woman and her dog came tumbling out of the movie chute at exactly the right moment, that director Kelly Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond somehow foresaw the current economic distress that Wendy seems to symbolize and timed the production perfectly to fit the national predicament. But Wendy would probably be just as unmoored in any time and place. It's in her nature.
In her we can see a bit of Sandrine Bonnaire's defiant female drifter in Agnès Varda's Vagabond, as well as the passive, inward-bending body language of the young "models" in Robert Bresson's later films, weakly struggling against their fate. Wendy's weary road trip takes a few of the same turns we've witnessed in, say, Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven or any number of American hard-luck screen stories of life on the road. The lonely, melancholy rhythms are familiar and so are the details. Filmmakers Reichardt and Raymond, who collaborated on the eccentric 2006 character study Old Joy (also set in the Oregon forests) know the emotional landscape well — Wendy and Lucy is adapted from Raymond's short story "Train Choir." They're determined to make us see and feel the same things Wendy does, and it's a humbling, completely absorbing experience.
Wendy and Lucy encounter other people along the way, but aside from a kindly security guard (Wally Dalton) they're as indifferent to Wendy's increasingly desperate situation as the trees in the wind. Veteran actor Will Patton, past master at conveying untrustworthiness, shows up as the manager of the repair shop who pronounces Wendy's car DOA. Lucy gets lost. Wendy is caught shoplifting dog chow. Faces come out of the rain. Wendy responds to each new setback by curling tighter into a ball. For actor Williams (Synecdoche, New York; I'm Not There; Brokeback Mountain) the role is an exercise in holding it all in, well past the breaking point, of quietly imploding amid the freight yards and crummy commercial strips of beat-out America. Wendy and Lucy is the blues, pure and simple.
Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger), the protagonist of Jonas Elmer's sweet, gooey romantic comedy New in Town, also finds herself with a case of the cross-country lonelies. Miami-based food corporation exec Lucy jumps at the chance to take the reins of one of the company's ailing snack food plants and make a name for herself by cutting the dead wood, etc. — even though that means temporarily moving to frosty New Ulm, Minnesota, where the women tend scrapbooks and bake cakes, the men go ice fishing, and everybody eats tapioca pudding.
Plenty of Fargo-style jokes, led by actor Siobhan Fallon Hogan in the role of Blanche Gunderson, irrepressible admin assist at Munck Foods. Cold-nipples-through-the-sweater joke. High-heels don't work in snowy bootland, lady. An extended How-Do-Women-in-Coveralls-Pee-in-the-Woods joke. Ted the studly, beer-drinking union rep (Harry Connick Jr.) changes Lucy's mind about the Great White North, even though he's essentially a corporation-fighting radical. Lucy's MBA-ese pep talks can't hold a candle to the joshing of the factory workers and their foreman, Stu (the wonderful J.K. Simmons). Stu's reference to "... faster than thin shit through a tall Swede" takes the early lead in the 2009 dialogue sweepstakes.
Zellweger has seldom shown off her body to such advantage — obviously the Bridget Jones years have been left behind. She and Connick work well together in one of the oldest plots in existence, and the moral of the story fits the flip side of the Wendy and Lucy coin — keep it local, stupid.
The third film in this week's "Women on the Road" trilogy is a bit of a stretch. Taken is pretty much all Liam Neeson's show. The wiry Irish international actor stars in the sort of part Harrison Ford would have gotten ten or fifteen years ago (or Gene Hackman, twenty years ago): rescuing his teenage offspring from repulsive villains in foreign locations.
Devoted dad Bryan Mills (Neeson), an ex-CIA agent who clearly misses the life, has moved to LA just to be close to daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), a spoiled child who lives with her mother, Bryan's ex-wife (Famke Janssen), and a ridiculously rich stepdad. Kim plans to traipse through Europe with her best friend over the objections of her father, who knows from experience how naughty the Euros can be. Sure enough, the two girls barely spend five minutes in Paris before they're snatched by a gang of crud-encrusted Albanians who intend to dope them up and sell them as sex slaves. This will not stand, vows Bryan.
Taken was cobbled together by French writer-producer Luc Besson (I Love You Philip Morris, Transporter 3, La Femme Nikita), writer Robert Mark Kamen, and cinematographer-turned-director Pierre Morel. They could very easily have gone the Hostel sex-and-guignol route but that would have obviated Neeson, seen here in, if not Gangs of New York shape, at least in credible fighting form. Armed mostly with smarts and knuckles, Bryan punches and shoots legions of Balkan plug-uglies on his way to the final showdown with, yes, a fat sheik on a yacht, deflowering pricey auctioned virgins by the carload. The chase scenes are not quite up to Bourne standards, but what else is?