Friday August 21, 1998
"Next Stop Wonderland" is a romance, but not just any romance. Smart and beguiling, it manages the impressive feat of believing wholeheartedly in the power of love without checking its mind at the door. Discriminating romantics will not believe their good fortune.
Though its plot echoes other films (including Claude Lelouch's "And Now My Love" and Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Red"), "Wonderland's" bemused, delicately ironic sensibility, supplied by co-writer, editor and director Brad Anderson, is strictly its own.
Helping to set that tone is the subtle yet sensual bossa nova music that dominates the soundtrack: classic Brazilian works by artists including Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto. In fact, Anderson has said, it's the Brazilian concept of saudade, a kind of happiness and sadness at the same time, that helped inspire this film.
In Hope Davis, recently seen in "The Daytrippers" and "The Myth of Fingerprints," Anderson has found the classic personification of this notion. It's unusual for a young actress to have the opportunity to carry an entire picture, and rarer still does one succeed with the aplomb Davis displays here.
Set in Boston, where Wonderland is, in fact, a train station close to the airport, "Next Stop" introduces both its droll sensibility and Davis' Erin Castleton at a low point in her life.
Walking home from her night-shift job as a registered nurse, Erin is confronted by her live-in boyfriend, Sean (the dead-on amusing Philip Seymour Hoffman), frantically trying to move out before she returns. A gung-ho political activist, he's off to help a needy Native American tribe, leaving her with a cat named Fidel and a tape postulating "Six Reasons Why Our Relationship Is Doomed."
Understandably hurt and angry, Erin is, as it turns out, a self-sufficient woman perfectly content to be on her own and quite capable of turning a tart tongue on those who don't believe that, especially her social butterfly mother, Piper (Holland Taylor).
Though she can appear dismissive and judgmental, Erin, we come to realize partly as we experience her love of poetry, acts that way to protect a good and caring heart. She may proclaim to her friends that she doesn't believe in "the unseen hand leading to the garden path," but part of her would be delighted if the right man came her way down that very path.
Piper Castleton, however, is not one who waits for fate. Without her daughter's permission, she places a personal ad for Erin in a Boston alternative paper. Erin is furious at first, but when she checks in on her responses, she's astonished to discover there are 64.
Partly out of boredom, partly out of curiosity, Erin decides to meet some of her suitors, and the scenes that follow, with their deft skewering of male ego and vanity, are irresistible. The zealot who sells small rubber parts (played by Robert Stanton) is a standout, but look also for the putative divinity student who talks about God being "a big subject"--it's the film's co-screenwriter, Lyn Vaus.
Paralleling Erin's life is that of another Boston resident, Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant), who's beset by a different set of problems. A third-generation plumber who works part time at the Boston Aquarium while studying to become a marine biologist, Alan is a mature, hard-working young man who spends a lot of his life taking evasive action.
In school, Alan tries to avoid Julie (Cara Buono), an attractive fellow student with a crush on him, and at work he tries to avoid Frank (Victor Argo), the loan shark he owes money to, as well as Frank's boss Arty Lesser (Robert Klein), a mortuary kingpin locked in a battle with the aquarium.
Though Erin and Alan live lives that seem completely separate, "Next Stop Wonderland" adroitly insinuates that maybe, just maybe, they are meant for each other.
It starts with a simple shot that frames them together: he in a subway car and she seated on the platform seen through a window behind him. As the film progresses, we see, though neither one of them does, just how intertwined their lives have become without their actually meeting. Again and again, in the same room, even on the same telephone line, they just miss connecting.
This is a very delicate balance for a director to maintain, keeping audiences honestly on edge as to whether two people will finally mesh or not, and filmmaker Anderson, in only his second film (the first was the Sundance entry "Darien Gap"), keeps his footing beautifully.
"Wonderland" succeeds because it shares a sensibility with its heroine: Despite its clever dialogue, it's an empathetic vehicle at heart, a work whose well-developed characters, even the sillier ones, insist we care even as they're making us laugh.
Because we care most about Erin and Alan, and because there is just enough sadness in this film for us to know that things don't have to work out, we feel terribly protective of these two. And as their individual romantic lives get more complicated, and they do, we worry desperately about their vulnerability, and ours. Much as we'd like to, this is one outcome we can't predict with complete assurance, and few things are more delicious than that.
Next Stop Wonderland, 1998. R, for language. Released by Miramax Films. Director Brad Anderson. Producer Mitchell B. Robbins. Screenplay by Brad Anderson & Lyn Vaus. Cinematographer Uta Briesewitz. Editor Brad Anderson. Music Claudio Ragazzi. Production design Chad Detweiller. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. Hope Davis as Erin Castleton. Alan Gelfant as Alan Monteiro. Victor Argo as Frank. Jon Benjamin as Eric. Cara Buono as Julie. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Sean.