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'Wonderland': Alice Doesn't Love Here Anymore

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 1998

  Movie Critic

Next Stop Wonderland
Hope Davis is the star of "Next Stop Wonderland." (Miramax)

Brad Anderson
Hope Davis;
Alan Gelfant;
Victor Argo;
H. Jon Benjamin;
Cara Buono
Running Time:
1 hour, 37 minutes
For language
"Next Stop Wonderland" has its Alice, its Queen of Hearts and even a rabbit hole of sorts. There are also many odd creatures stirring about this whimsical tale. That they happen to be everyday dweebs, duds and freaks attests to the off-center sensibilities of this charming comedy about the search for love.

Erin (Hope Davis of "The Daytrippers") is the movie's Alice: a not-quite-beautiful blonde with a propensity toward bemusement. Her mother (Holland Taylor) is the imperious know-it-all, and Wonderland is a Boston subway stop. Lest we stretch the metaphor like the elastic in an old pair of pantyhose, we should mention that the tale's structure is more in line with "Sleepless in Seattle."

Though a shade darker than the commercial hit, "Wonderland" similarly keeps audiences in suspense by keeping potential soul mates apart. Here, however, it's not distance but circumstance that prevents them from cute collision. Though they regularly cross paths, they invariably go their separate ways at the last millisecond.

But in examining their separate lives, director Brad Anderson and his hand-held camera hope to prove that Alan (Alan Gelfant), a pensive ex-plumber, is meant for Erin, a wistful night-shift nurse. And while we'd rather see her run off with a hunky Brazilian (Jose Zuniga), Anderson does have a point.

Erin, dumped by her activist boyfriend (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) in the film's witty prologue, is soon wallowing in solitude. She's come to treasure her time alone, reading the old books she loves, listening to her bossa nova records and remembering her late father.

When her mother discovers Erin thus becalmed, she decides to blast her out of her funk. Without telling her daughter, she places a personals ad in the local paper. "Frisky, cultured with a zest for life" hardly describes the sad, somewhat cranky and still supremely irked Erin.

Though she's furious with her mother for meddling, Erin gives in to her curiosity and responds to the sudden deluge of voice mail. Against her better instincts, she agrees to meet some of the would-be suitors. But even after screening the calls, she is left with a veritable freak show of desperate singles, married men and a psychiatrist on a busman's holiday.

Meanwhile, Alan pursues his studies in marine biology, volunteers at the Boston Aquarium and fends off the frequent advances of a lusty classmate (Cara Buono). He's also in hock to a loan shark, both for his tuition money and for his father's gambling debts.

Alan approaches his problems with maturity and intelligence and, in the sexy coed's case, a great deal of reluctance. Caring, sensible and sensitive, he is certainly a marriageable man but not the type to sweep you off your feet. That seems to be the point. As one of Erin's nursing colleagues observes: "The real mystery is what keeps two people together after they meet."

Unfortunately, a happy, stable relationship is the last thing you want in a romantic comedy, which runs on keeping the characters apart. That, by the way, isn't as easy as it was in the golden age of the genre. In the '30s and '40s, there were all kinds of socioeconomic barriers: religion, race, age, class, or one of them was already married.

"Next Stop Wonderland" manages to keep the soul mates apart and still keep us guessing. Anderson and co-writer Lyn Vaus, like their full-bodied characters, are delightfully unpredictable. Just as the movie moves toward its climax, Erin is swept off her feet by the suave Brazilian musician and Alan is bowled over by his seductive classmate. Maybe they weren't meant to be after all. But that's okay.

In this instance it's the individual characters, so carefully crafted, who count, as opposed to a tidy conclusion. The screenplay, which seems to have lost some of its connective tissue in the editing process, leaves any number of storylines dangling. Nice to be dangling for a change, eh?

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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