Next Stop Wonderland is a great romantic comedy, but you wouldn’t know it from the first scene.
The movie opens on a woman getting dumped by her activist boyfriend. The grainy look of the film, the traditional camera angles, and the youthful political ranting make it look like a cheaply made student film.
In fact, the film was cheaply made, and by a novice director. But it wasn’t poorly made. It is one of the best-made films of the year, with interesting characters (major and minor) and sharp dialogue. The film is uneven in places, but the overall quality is good enough to overcome these stumbling blocks.
The dumpee from the beginning is Erin (Hope Davis), one of the most interesting main characters in a long time. Erin is a quiet solitary type. She’s a nurse who likes to read. She enjoys being alone, and the only time she feels lonely is on a subway or in a crowded room. If only she could hate men, her life would be so much easier. Instead, she tries to decide whether to continue being alone or to make the effort of dating.
This role required a sophisticated actor who could portray understated and ambivalent emotions, and Davis did a fabulous job. She was helped by writer/director Anderson, who surrounded Erin with extroverted friends and a pushy, matchmaking mother. (Mom’s view of single life is opposite Erin’s — she believes that women who are alone cannot be content.)
Erin spends much of the film pondering Mr. Right: is there such a man, will they ever meet, should she settle for less, can she be as happy without him? Her search for love is all the more interesting because, with her solitary personality, Mr. Perfect is not necessarily Mr. Right.
Nevertheless, the film has chosen a match for her. The movie’s sense of fate is refreshing. In this film, Fate is not cruel or harsh, but quietly persistent. Erin doesn’t believe in fate, but Fate couldn’t care less what she thinks.
After Erin dismisses the notion of a fated, perfect match, the movie introduces Alan. Alan (played by Alan Gelfant) has been a plumber but he’s going back to school to study what he loves: marine biology. He is 35, but his haggard face makes him look older. He has a tough-guy background, but he’s ready to put that behind him and start over in his new intellectual pursuits. He is not obviously the most perfect man for Erin, but Fate seems to think so.
Though Erin’s and Alan’s stories are intercut (often cleverly), the two don’t actually meet. Each one has suitors but both are holding out for something better, someone more perfect.
An ingenious twist near the end of the film introduces Erin to Andre de Silva (José Zúñiga), a new “Mr. Right,” just before it seems that she and Alan will meet....
The romantic tension is great and the dialogue is witty and sharp, but the film does have some weak spots. Most are in Alan’s subplots. He owes money to a local mobster. When he can’t pay on time, he is asked to kill a popular fish at the aquarium where he works. As if that weren’t outlandish enough, the aquarium security guard is a clone of Don Knotts playing Barney Fife. The scenes are a silly interlude to the main act of the movie, but they are light enough that they don’t cause any lasting harm.
A refreshingly low-key main character, dialogue that made me laugh out loud, and the film’s belief in the gentlest kind of fate all made Next Stop Wonderland a pleasure to watch.