Film Analysis | Film Reviews | Massachusetts

Review: ‘Next Stop, Wonderland’

1 Sep , 1998  

Written by Kiersten Conner-Sax | Posted by:

There's a lot to like about this funny, endearing, and genuine movie, but as with sugar-free cookies, it would have been better with, well, some sugar.
Local director Brad Anderson’s second feature "Next Stop, Wonderland" is something like a sugar-free, indie version of "Sleepless in Seattle." The romantic leads pine for each other and continually almost meet against a scenic Boston backdrop. You know that if and when they finally do meet, they’re destined for True Love. There’s a lot to like about this funny, endearing, and genuine movie, but as with sugar-free cookies, it would have been better with, well, some sugar.

"Next Stop, Wonderland" can be summarized as "boy might meet girl." Hope Davis plays Erin, a nurse who has just been dropped by her reactionary liberal live-in boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who took the futon and VCR but wants to leave her the cat and a videotape of why he’s leaving. Her story is intertwined through circumstance with that of Alan (Alan Gelfant), a plumber who wants to leave pipes behind to become a marine biologist. First, Erin drops by the aquarium where Alan volunteers; then, when her mother places a personal ad in Erin’s name, she goes out on a date with his brother. A number of other coincidences steer them past each other a few too many times. So, when we get to Erin’s romance with a collector of South American folk songs, we’ve definitely gotten the point that she and Alan are made for each other.

This is only one of the problems with the script, which tends to belabor the obvious and provide flat characterizations. Erin, as written, is just too dour and miserable to hold the viewer’s interest. We’re told that she used to be "frisky" and fun before her beloved father’s death, but that’s hard to believe. While the loss of a loved one is painful, I found myself wanting to tell her to take a bath, get a good night’s sleep, and cheer the hell up. Mitchell B. Robbins, the movie’s producer, commented that the script is based on the Grimm’s fairy tale in which a king wishes to marry his daughter to the first suitor who can make her smile. Unfortunately, that theme seems to have been taken quite literally, since Erin rarely ceases frowning until the movie’s end. The character is confusing in this sense, as well: she tells a female friend that women shouldn’t expect men to make them happy, but for Erin, a man, in the form of father or lover, is the only thing that does.

The film focuses more on Erin than on Alan, which is unfortunate; he is the much more compelling of the two. As a plumber striving for something better, he seems hopeful in the face of discouraging teachers and family members. His enthusiasm even remains intact after a loan shark contracts him to put a hit on a beloved puffer fish. He owes the loan shark for his tuition money (why Alan doesn’t take out student loans like everyone else is another problem with the script), but also feels indebted due to his compulsive-gambler father. His conflicts are much more poignant than Erin’s, who mourns her dead poet father by staring morosely at Commonwealth Avenue. Alan, however, soldiers on. Anderson and fellow screenwriter Lyn Vaus would have done better to focus their story on him.

Still, much of the script is witty and warm, and Anderson is a very talented director. A few of the camera shots of Erin and Alan’s near-meetings are almost brilliant: Erin on a subway platform, seen over Alan’s shoulder as he sits on the train, and, my favorite, when Alan spills a drink on the "Boston Herald" his brother was scanning for personals, and a picture of Erin appears through the soaked pages.

"Next Stop, Wonderland" also benefits from a superb cast. Holland Taylor, as Erin’s mother, is able to transcend the one-note characterization to show a modeling agent who isn’t all fun and games; Hoffman is marvelously funny as the radical ex-boyfriend; and local comic Steve Sweeney has a great, one-minute cameo as a cab driver.

Anderson’s film is a little too long, and his heroine is a little too sullen. All in all, though, "Next Stop, Wonderland" is an amusing romantic comedy, with great locations, a witty tone, and a very cute puffer fish.