Howard Spence is a cowboy star, a screen legend that a movie can be built around. He plays a straight-shooting symbol of fortitude, the kind of man you'd want at your side when all hell breaks loose. In real life, however, Howard is a yellowbelly who flees adult responsibility like a prairie dog spooked by a rattlesnake, and a lout whose idea of recreation is a bottle of Jack and two teenage Jills.
The tension between the iconic lone ranger and the skittish recluse inside him is the mainspring that propels "Don't Come Knocking." A funny, melancholy hybrid of family drama, road picture and farce, it begins with Howard (Sam Shepard) riding his horse at a heroic gallop. He's actually running away from his latest film, unable to fake his way through another vacuous session of make-believe. But he's so noble-looking that he makes skedaddling appear valiant. We're alternately drawn to his broad-shouldered charisma and repulsed by his asinine behavior.
Howard hides out with his mother, bunking in a basement room decorated with his high school memorabilia. Things could hardly be more humiliating for a 60-year-old man, but they get worse when he finds Mom's memory book, a collection of scandal-sheet clippings about his trysts, drug busts and crackups. She also drops the bomb that Howard has a 20-year-old child from a long-forgotten fling in Montana.
While a private investigator seeks to shanghai Howard back to the set, the actor takes off through the dusty West in search of the offspring he never knew he had. Howard is embarking on his first real adventure, the kind that entails a furious purse-whipping from an old flame rather than a barroom brawl with breakaway chairs.
The trail leads to Butte, Mont., a tapped-out mining town that is, if not literally the middle of nowhere, probably less than an hour away. He reconnects with his ex-lover (Jessica Lange) and meets their headstrong son (Gabriel Mann). Compications multiply when a young woman claiming to be his daughter (the infallibly interesting Sarah Polley) joins his clan.
Howard half-realizes he must shed his fake persona and prove himself a competent family man, and he'd never get there without the spiritual guidance of the women in the story. But even as he stumbles and slips, he's taking the first clumsy steps in the right direction.
"Don't Come Knocking" is a 20-year reunion for Shepard and German director Wim Wenders, whose earlier collaboration on the similarly-themed "Paris, Texas" is one of the essential films of the 1980s. The new film is lighter, more hopeful and more visually arresting. (Franz Lustig's luminous cinematography deservedly took top prize at the European Film Awards.) It walks a fine line between sentimentality and satire, but rarely stumbles, thanks to a cast that is captivating to hear and watch.
Lange's trajectory from delight at once again seeing her long-lost lover to banshee fury at his emotional unavailability is wonderful to behold. Shepard, who usually plays archetypal heroes, has written himself a honey of a part that allows him to dump the gravitas and act like a lunkhead while retaining a core of sincerity.
The film ends on a charming grace note that leaves open the issue of whether Howard will ever get his act together. "Don't Come Knocking" is restrained -- and charitable -- enough to permit viewers to draw their own conclusions. If only all midlife crises were so upbeat and entertaining.
The setup: A cowboy movie hero (Sam Shepard) is dumbfounded to learn he has a 20-year-old son from a long-forgotten fling.
What works: The film's warmth, its bittersweet comic tone and affection for its flawed characters are touching but never sappy.
What doesn't: Tim Roth, playing a private investigator on Shepard's tail, is an interesting figure with too little screen time.
Rating: R for language and brief nudity.