Next Stop, Wonderland (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When I first saw Next Stop, Wonderland at a packed screening in the Egyptian Theater during this year's Sundance Film Festival, I was not impressed, and couldn't understand why Miramax Films would ante up $6 million for what is fundamentally a re-tread of last year's somnambulant 'Til There Was You. Now, seven months and numerous plaudits later, I decided to give Next Stop, Wonderland another chance in advance of its North American theatrical release. And, much to my surprise, I discovered that I didn't dislike it nearly as much as I did on my first viewing. Oh, there are some problems, but, overall, the experience is mildly entertaining.

Next Stop, Wonderland wants to be a quirky romantic comedy, but it doesn't quite succeed. The characters are familiar: a pair of young, attractive adults trying to find themselves and their perfect mate amidst the chaos of the modern world. The unconventional aspect of the movie is that the leads don't actually connect until the end (Sleepless in Seattle, which will be mentioned in almost every review of Next Stop, Wonderland, did this better), which makes the entire film seem like a two-hour tease. When it comes to romantic movies, the audience wants to see what happens after a couple gets together. Everything that occurs beforehand is background information. Consequently, there are times when, as diverting as it can be, Next Stop, Wonderland feels like a lengthy prologue to an as-yet unmade film.

Fortunately, the characters are both engaging, even if their life stories aren't. Erin Castleton (Hope Davis) is a 29 year-old nurse who is just emerging from the break-up of a live-in relationship with a left wing activist. Erin decides that she's done with romance, repeatedly stating to anyone who will listen, "I'm not lonely. I like to be by myself." However, her mother, Piper (Holland Taylor), doesn't believe a word of it, and decides to take control of Erin's love life. "If you're not going to help yourself, I feel it is my duty as your mother to help you," she informs her nonplused daughter after Erin sees an ad in the personals that her mother placed for her, which describes her as a "frisky, cultured, carefree professional with a zest for life." Soon, she is inundated by phone calls and propositions, none of which appear promising.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Boston, we're introduced to Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant), a thirtysomething plumber who does volunteer work at the local aquarium. Alan loves the sea and its creatures, and is spending his free time taking classes to become a marine biologist. He owes money to a local loan shark (Victor Argo), and, in order to pay off his debt, he has been "asked" to kill a special fish in the aquarium. Unable to commit such an act of blatant cruelty, Alan instead fakes the fish's bloody death while bringing it home to live with him.

Erin and Alan's paths repeatedly graze each other, but just miss intersecting. At a train station, he's on board while she's on the platform. At the aquarium, he's diving in a tank while she's gazing through the glass. At a restaurant, she's outside while he's within. There always seems to be a window separating them. We know, of course, that they're eventually going to get together. That's the whole point of the movie, with its frequent discourses about the differences between fate and chance. Unfortunately, director Brad Anderson takes a little too long getting to the payoff. While the first half of Next Stop, Wonderland breezes along amiably, the last half-hour drags as we start becoming impatient for some sort of resolution. The longer the movie dwells on the protagonists' mundane lives and uninteresting, temporary relationships (he's involved with a younger woman; she's interested in a Brazilian traveler), the less enjoyable it is.

Hope Davis, the Julie Delpy-lookalike who lit up the screen in The Daytrippers, is delightful as Erin. Davis' performance is one of the reasons to stick with Next Stop, Wonderland all the way to the end. Her character is a charming individual, especially when she's exasperated (which is quite often). Davis' opposite, Alan Gelfant, is equally likable, although he doesn't have nearly the same kind of screen incandescence. It's pointless to talk about chemistry between them, because they're rarely on-screen together. A gallery of oddball supporting characters are caught in the orbit of the two leads. Notable appearances include Holland Taylor as Erin's busybody mother and Cara Buono as a woman who's more interested in Alan's body than his mind.

Brad Anderson (whose debut feature, The Darien Gap, opened eyes on the indie circuit) is clearly a keen observer of details, and, although the overall story loses its way, he always gets the little things right. When Erin is on a crowded train, surrounded by people, her sense of isolation is palpable. Also, many of Next Stop, Wonderland's comic vignettes are amusing, such as a montage where various men record messages for Erin to hear, or the sequence when she meets several would-be suitors at a bar. But all of the film's strengths aren't quite good enough to overcome the deficiency of a plot that never seems to get where it's going, even if that next stop is Wonderland.

Next Stop, Wonderland (United States, 1998)

Director: Brad Anderson
Cast: Hope Davis, Alan Gelfant, Victor Argo, Cara Buono, Holland Taylor, José Zúñiga, Robert Klein
Screenplay: Brad Anderson, Lyn Vaus
Cinematography: Uta Briesewitz
Music: Claudio Ragazzi
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 1998-08-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1