"Next Stop Wonderland" is a charming indie romance from director Brad Anderson, who first debuted at Sundance in 1996 with his impressive first offering, "The Darien Gap". After screening at 1998's Sundance Festival, Miramax picked up the distribution rights for this semi-serious look at romance in the Nineties for a cool six million. Though the story does tend to lose its focus and drag in parts, it is still a witty and wise look at the dynamic interplay between life, love, dating, and destiny.
The real mystery is what keeps two people together after they meet.
The film begins with Bostonian Erin Castleton (Hope Davis, who bears an uncanny resemblance to French actress Julie Delpy) arriving home after the night shift at the hospital to find her activist live-in boyfriend moving out. He cites many reasons to walking out on her, and he has made a videotape explaining his rationalization. However, she is unable to watch the tape because he has taken the VCR. Slipping into a melancholic state, Erin swears off the elusive pursuit of romance, preferring to spend much of her time alone.
If you're not going to help yourself, I feel it is my duty as your mother to help you.
This does not sit well with Erin's mother (Holland Taylor), who decides to proactively find suitors for her glum daughter by placing a personal ad in the local newspaper. The ad, which describes Erin as a 'frisky, cultured, carefree professional with a zest for life' attracts sixty-four would-be boyfriends, a parade of well-tread pick-up lines and overused platitudes. There's a married man who hides his wedding ring in his wallet, only to have it fall out conspicuously at an inopportune moment. There's the man who claims to be calling from his small business, when in actual fact he is sitting on the can and an 'incoming fax' is merely some toilet paper. And then there's the suitor who doesn't talk much, because he's a therapist. Despite the overwhelming choice of men presented to her, Erin finds having to choose from a weak selection.
I was married a long time ago. I carry that around as a good luck charm.
Looks like it's not working.
On the other side of Boston, Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant) is a plumber who is studying to be a marine biologist, and works as a volunteer diver at the local aquarium. Dedicated to the accomplishment of his dream, he spends his time bouncing between school and the aquarium, which leaves him little time for romantic pursuits. Furthermore, his life is complicated by the means by which he supports himself while he is in school. He has taken a loan from a local loan shark (Victor Argo), who calls in the loan by asking Alan for a favor: kill Puffy the blowfish, the aquarium's number one attraction, so that a rival developer can grab some land slated for the aquarium's expansion.
With men, there is always a choice. It's just that there's a weak selection.
Erin and Alan cross paths numerous times during the film, but never meet. If she is waiting on a subway platform, he is sitting on a passing train. While he is in an aquarium feeding the fish, she is on the other side of the glass, watching. They go the same bars and restaurants, though at different times. They have mutual acquaintances, but for some reason are never introduced to one another. And they are also beset with distractions that divert them from the path to finding their soul mate, as Erin's eye is caught by a friendly Brazilian (Jose Zuniga) and Alan has gained the amorous attentions of a comely student (Cara Buono) in his class. It seems that they are doomed never to meet, but as they shuffle about in their lonely and isolated lives, some unseen hand draws them closer together.
So what attracted you to nursing?
Other people's pain.
"Next Stop Wonderland" is very similar thematically to the triumphant finale of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors Trilogy", "Red". Like this classic European film, "Next Stop Wonderland" speaks to the metaphysical topics of fate and destiny, as well as the invisible connections that link us all to one another. This whimsical narrative targets the hopeless romantics in all of us, teasing us by showing how the lives of Erin and Alan are inexplicably linked together, and then keeping them apart until the very end.
Unfortunately, this approach does have its problems. The film tends to suffer from laggard pacing at several points, which stems from the story losing its way by dwelling on unnecessary or incongruent subplots, most notably the interactions between Alan and the loan shark. Furthermore, the characterizations of Erin and Alan are surprisingly flat. Though they are both likable, these characters do not distinguish themselves from the prototypical stock characters that tend to populate the archetypal romantic-comedy. And because they do not actually share a scene until the very last moment, the emotional build-up to the great moment of epiphany is muted, leaving the sense of a missing payoff.
Fortunately, these elements are balanced out by some excellent performances, sharp and snappy dialogue, and comic vignettes that will have any jaded romantic smiling. Davis, despite the paucity of material to work with and the almost constant sullen state of her character, manages to light up the screen with her charm and winning performance. Gelfant also turns in a decent performance, though his low-key screen presence ends up being overshadowed by Davis. The cast is also rounded out by numerous supporting characters, including veteranRobert Klein as a shade real estate developer, and Callie Thorne (Detective Ballard of "Homicide: Life on the Street") as Erin's best friend.
Anderson chose to shoot this film using freehand camera work. Coupled with a tendency towards the use of jump-cuts, "Next Stop Wonderland" has a documentary-feel to it. Though some movie-goers may find the odd choice of cinematography distracting, it actually helps Anderson create the illusion that the film is actually a voyeuristic peek into Erin's life, offering a certain level of emotional truthfulness, instead of being just some staged production.
"Next Stop Wonderland" is a whimsical romance that is a delight to watch. Granted, it does have its problems, especially in the long middle stretch, but its heady examination on metaphysical matters and the winning performance of its female lead make it worthwhile.