Wonderful World (United States, 2009)January 14, 2010
Wonderful World feels like a modern-day half-baked riff on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Despite a film festival pedigree (it was shown at a number of local festivals on the 2009 circuit), the movie is so lightweight and inconsequential that a review seems almost superfluous. You know how it goes: the poor excuse for a human being experiences a spiritual re-awakening and sees the world in a different light. Although the story is derivative and not entirely credible, the main problem germinates from unconvincing performances. A woefully miscast Matthew Broderick headlines a group of actors who have accomplished good things in the past but are left rudderless in veteran screenwriter Joshua Goldin's directorial debut. Cheesy accents and lame dialogue abound. Wonderful World's themes are clearly conveyed, and the movie avoids what could have been an unbearably cloying ending, but too much of what's on screen feels forced and unnatural.
Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick) is a recently divorced, middle-aged man who works as a proofreader and shares his apartment with a roommate, Ibu (Michael K. Williams). Ibu, who joins his cohabitator in playing chess and smoking joints, is the closest thing Ben has to a friend. This lifestyle is a come-down for someone who was once a successful performer of children's songs. Ben is a bitter, unpleasant misanthrope. His teenage daughter, Sandra (Jodelle Ferland), finds her times with her father to be so intolerable that she no longer wants to spend nights or weekends in his custody and invents excuses to deny him his court-appointed rights. The chip on Ben's shoulder is made more pronounced by his marijuana-induced visions of "The Man" (Philip Baker Hall), who lectures him on the unfairness of life.
One day, Ibu goes into a diabetic coma and is hospitalized. His sister, Khadi (Sanaa Lathan), arrives from Senegal to be at his side. Ben invites her to stay with him and, in a surprisingly perfunctory fashion, the two fall in love. For a while, this improves Ben's disposition and Khadi's influence coaxes enough humanity from his soul for him to share a few nice moments with his daughter. But has she wormed herself into Ben's affections and bed because she cares for him or because he's her best bet for obtaining a green card?
In a strange sort of way, Wonderful World recalls The Visitor, the below-the-radar 2007 film starring Richard Jenkins as a man who rediscovers his humanity when he connects with two squatters living in his New York apartment. Yet, as believable as Jenkins' transformation was, that's how hard it is to swallow the second-rate spiritual journey undertaken by Ben. Perhaps the real problem with Wonderful World evoking recollections of The Visitor is that, even in an indirect comparison, the inferiority of Goldin's effort is apparent. The Visitor provoked a genuine emotional response; Wonderful World contains yeast that never rises.
Broderick, who has come a long way since Ferris Bueller (the role for which he is still best known) is a poor fit for Ben. In trying to mask his natural boyish charm, Broderick overplays the character's nastiness to a level that approaches caricature. I didn't for a moment believe in this character. Broderick doesn't deserve sole credit for torpedoing Ben; he is saddled with terrible dialogue and the timing is so poor in supposed comedic scenes that even mild chuckles are unlikely. One almost feels sorry for the charismatic Saana Lathan (Love & Basketball, Something New), who makes a game attempt to salvage something from her interracial relationship with Broderick, but the lack of chemistry defeats her. Poor Michael K. Williams (one of the stars of the TV series The Wire) spends most of the film unconscious. A bright spot is provided by young Jodelle Ferland, whose scenes with Broderick are the only ones that ring true.
I suppose Wonderful World could be considered a "feel good" motion picture, but it's the kind of movie in which the upbeat ending doesn't wholly justify the discomfort of getting there. The direction and writing are purely TV-movie-of-the-week quality. The experience is so unremarkable that spending any money on it is overly generous. A paying customer could be forgiven for feeling that he isn't getting his money's worth.
Wonderful World (United States, 2009)
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Sanaa Lathan, Michael K. Williams, Jodelle Ferland, Philip Baker Hall, Ally Walker
Screenplay: Joshua Goldin
Cinematography: Daniel Shulman
Music: Craig Richey
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures