Strangers in the Night

The idea of destiny--especially the notion that two people are fated to meet and fall in love--is a load of crap, but a surprising number of people buy into it. Probably for that reason, it has proved a popular element in movie romances, City of Angels and Sliding Doors being two recent examples. The latest picture celebrating life's whimsical turns of fate is Next Stop Wonderland, starring the always watchable Hope Davis (The Myth of Fingerprints, The Daytrippers). A hit at 1997's Sundance Festival, the picture is smart enough--and just cynical enough--not to alienate the skeptical, although director/co-writer (and editor) Brad Anderson clearly counts himself among the spiritually faithful.

Set in Boston, the movie is structured like Claude Lelouch's 1974 film And Now My Love, which followed the lives of two strangers--a man and a woman--whose paths come perilously close to converging but never actually cross until the final moments of the film, when they fall in love at first sight. Because, of course, it was meant to be.

The would-be lovers in Next Stop Wonderland (Wonderland is a station on the MBTA's Blue Line) are Erin (Davis), a smart and attractive but chronically depressed night-shift nurse, and Alan (Alan Gelfant), an ambitious ex-plumber pursuing his dream of becoming a marine biologist.

Dumped by her slovenly, self-absorbed, Greenpeace/Save-the-Whales-and-all-the-Indian-tribes boyfriend, Sean (Phil Hoffman), Erin becomes bitter, cranky and even more negative. Her stylish, high-powered mother (Holland Taylor, wonderful at projecting an "unsinkable" Molly Brown vivaciousness while also quietly allowing a glimpse of well-guarded vulnerability) tries to rouse her from her torpor, going so far as to place an ad in the personals column in Erin's name.

Erin, who mopes around while insisting that she is happy being alone, finally gives in and checks the messages from her prospective suitors. Sixty-two men have phoned, and in a deftly handled, very funny sequence, she proceeds to meet with each of them at a nearby bar. The men range from hopeless losers to attractive assholes--the kind who lie and say they're single. Nearly all of them possess an inflated self-image, and each one utters the same stupid come-on lines.

Meanwhile, Alan spends his days at the Boston Aquarium as a volunteer diver (swimming around inside a huge fish tank, doing whatever it is volunteer divers do). The rest of the time he is at school, fending off the advances of a randy classmate, drinking with his brother and his brother's friends (whose careless attitudes about women he abhors) and trying to pay off a growing debt to a loan shark.

Anderson and his co-writer, Lyn Vaus (who, just for the record, is also a man), come up with some clever, near-miss scenarios for their two protagonists: They nearly meet at the aquarium, they frequent the same bar (albeit at different hours) and they pass each other continually on the subway (one on the platform, the other inside the train).

The script contains some extremely choice lines, most of them observations on the male species. It's a safe bet that only women in the audience will appreciate the remarks, which is a pity, given that men would benefit greatly from seeing themselves the way far too many of them are. While the men aren't as reprehensibly caddish as those in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men, they still have much to answer for. Kudos to Anderson and Vaus for painting such an unflattering but honest portrait of their gender. (And, no, not all the male characters are schmucks; just the majority of them.)

Unfortunately, the script also has its weaknesses. As good as Davis is, the character she plays never seems to grow. When we meet Erin, she is droopy and morose, and it's difficult to believe she became that way only after Sean dumped her. (What is she doing with an annoying slob like Sean anyway?) Even her mother remarks that Erin has been unhappy for many years. The film suggests that Erin has never recovered from her beloved father's death; his passing obviously had something to do with her decision to drop out of Harvard Medical School. But that story strand is never explored.

Furthermore, Erin has practically nothing in common with the sly, very together woman who faces the onslaught of suitors who have answered her personal ad. When she finally meets a man she thinks she might like (no, not Alan, but a sexy Brazilian musicologist played by Jose Zuniga), she still blows hot and cold. Even when she meets Alan--and given the premise, you know she's going to--she doesn't seem any different now than she was in the first scene. Whatever happened to character development?

One explanation for this, believe it or not, is found in the film's musical score, which consists almost exclusively of bossa nova and samba numbers. Apparently, Brazilian music combines happiness and sadness at the same time, and Erin, who loves the music, is supposed to embody these mixed emotions. For those of us who can hum only a few bars of "The Girl From Ipanema," the explanation doesn't carry much water, and Erin's character ends up seeming inadequately defined. This lack of definition gives the film a sort of hodgepodge feel.

That feeling is accentuated by the camera work, which favors a shaky, hand-held look and a preponderance of close-ups and tight medium shots. The avant-garde, film-school look fits the story well but definitely gives the picture a forced, low-budget indie feel.

Next Stop Wonderland.
Written by Brad Anderson and Lyn Vaus. Directed by Brad Anderson. Starring Hope Davis, Alan Gelfant and Jose Zuniga.

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