Broderick as the perfect schlub
By Dan Kois
Friday, Jan. 29, 2010
"Wonderful World," the first feature directed by career screenwriter Joshua Goldin, packs a lot of familiar indie-movie tropes into one sad-sack drama. Matthew Broderick plays Ben Singer, a onetime children's musician who has lost his connection to his art. (Just like Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart"!) Ben has alienated his preteen daughter but has hopes of patching things up. (Just like Greg Kinnear in "Little Miss Sunshine"!) And thanks to the influence of colorful, open-hearted foreigners, depressed misanthrope Ben just might learn to embrace life. (Just like Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor"!)
If the components of "Wonderful World" seem a little tired, the film still has its own low-key pleasures, thanks to Broderick's restrained performance and a script that punctuates the inescapable saccharine of its storyline with tart little bursts of anger. "At least I don't burden myself with hopes and dreams," Ben harrumphs to an aspiring actress at his dead-end office job, and Goldin is unafraid to let his hero be that irritating guy who's always railing against The Man.
Dumped by his record label after a solo album for adults didn't work out, Ben now spends his time arguing with his neighbors, bumming out his weekends-only daughter (Jodelle Ferland, appealingly natural), and smoking pot with his thoughtful Senegalese roommate, Ibou (Michael K. Williams). When a medical crisis sends Ibou to the hospital for an open-ended stay, Ben puts up his buddy's sister, Khadi (Saana Lathan), and the mismatched pair -- she's as cheerful as he is dour -- move, predictably but not unpleasantly, toward a relationship.
As the Senegalese siblings whose folksy wisdom reinvigorates Ben, Lathan and Williams are appealing but imperfectly cast. Lathan, a terrific actress criminally underused by Hollywood, seems so far out of Ben's league that she throws the film's central romance off its axis. And Williams (best known as the majestic Omar on "The Wire") struggles to deliver half-digested tidbits of game theory in a shaky West African accent. (It should be noted, though, that Williams and Lathan are quite convincing as brother and sister, both being inhumanly beautiful.)
Broderick, for his part, is playing a role solidly in his late-career wheelhouse: a middle-age disappointment, Ferris Bueller gone to seed. So affecting is Broderick in these parts -- at this point, only Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a better schlub -- that there's more enjoyment to be had in Ben coming out of his shell than there was in any of the smart-aleck roles Broderick was handed in the initial post-Ferris Bueller era.
"Wonderful World" can move exceedingly slowly at times (a misbegotten subplot about a frivolous lawsuit doesn't help), but it's enlivened by a soundtrack that includes musicians from Senegal and Kenya -- plus a couple of convincing children's songs written by wild-haired kiddie-folk hero Dan Zanes, who makes a cameo. The movie's as unassuming and, at times, as exasperating as Ben Singer himself. But given that its only showtimes at Landmark's E Street are the audience-unfriendly 4:30 p.m., and on weekends also at 11:45 p.m., it's likely to remain as underappreciated as its hero.
Contains obscenity, some drug use and sexual content.