Next Stop Wonderland (1998) / Comedy-Romance

MPAA Rated: R for language and sexual references (I'd rate this PG-13)
Running Time: 104 min.

Cast: Hope Davis, Alan Gelfant, Callie Thorne, Jose Zuniga, Cara Buono, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Holland Taylor, Ken Cheeseman, Pamela Hart
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenplay: Brad Anderson, Lyn Vaus

A small, independent romantic comedy done well, Next Stop Wonderland makes up for its inherent predictability by being insightful, witty, and refreshing.  In this film, as with a similarly premised Sleepless in Seattle, we fully expect that the two protagonists will end up together despite being complete strangers, but we don't know the hows or whys.  We watch both of them battle through feelings of loneliness and inadequacy, cycling through potential mates like a box of tissues, growing increasingly pessimistic after each experience.  Like many of us at one time or another, they become so disenchanted, they eventually even settle for potential flings with people they know aren't quite the Mr.. or Ms. Right they are anxiously, desperately searching for.

In the beginning of the film, we find Erin (Hope Davis, The Daytrippers), a thirty-something nurse getting bitterly jilted by her former live-in boyfriend, Sean (Hoffman, Boogie Nights).  Depressed but stagnant, Erin's overbearing mother (Taylor, Romancing the Stone) sets up a personal ad to help her meet new men, an idea that Erin resists until curiosity gets the better of her.  Meanwhile, we meet Alan (Gelfant, The Dogwalker), a plumber with aspirations of becoming a marine biologist, taking classes and getting into debt with a loan shark to make ends meet.  he might make a perfect match for Erin, but they keep missing one another, despite being joined by a circle of acquaintances that are all too familiar. 

Perhaps the biggest appeal to Next Stop Wonderland is the excellent characterizations and clever situations created in the script by writer-director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9) and co-writer Lyn Vaus (Siegried and Roy: The Magic Box, Temptation).  Even if the main structure of the romantic comedy adheres to formula, the way it gets to its final destination is not.  The two protagonists aren't sappy dreamers with exceeding beauty that we have to swallow disbelief that they would struggle to find an adequate mate.  They are well-rounded people, attractive in their own way, but they have other things in life that have meaning besides finding a significant other, although both miss the companionship being in a relationship offers. 

Beyond the characterizations, the side plots are inventive enough to merit watching as well.  Asides involving the city's aquarium expansion and the sabotage of its mascot, a balloonfish named Puff, give the film a wholly unique flavor.  Also of interest is the nature of the phoniness of the personal ad world, made especially funny when three friends make a bet on how far they can go when they answer the ad placed by the same woman, not knowing what they are in for when they pick the assertive Erin as their mark.  Although similar to the main premise of another indie romantic comedy, 1997's Men Seeking Women, it plays out better, and funnier, here.

Next Stop Wonderland is primarily aimed at audiences that would claim themselves to be romantic comedy regulars, and may not be of appeal to many outside of that demographic, except perhaps for fans of Hope Davis, in a performance that would make her an independent comedy film favorite.  Anyone bored with the same-old tripe that Hollywood regularly markets and packages for easy consumption should seek this charming and clever take on an old fashioned standard out. 

 Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo