Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Lost in Love

By Devin D. O'Leary

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  In Hollywood, the dictate is that romantic couples must "meet cute"--colliding their shopping carts in the produce aisle, crash-landing on a tropical island full of pirates, getting their mail mixed up, being kidnapped by terrorists, that kind of thing. In the cynical world of independent cinema, however, the dictate seems to be that romantic couples must never really "meet." In Hollywood, the couples spend a certain amount of time fighting, bickering or otherwise ignoring their obvious attraction, but they eventually get it on in heart-warming, hankie-watering fashion. In independent films, our prospective lovers are lucky to sneak in one lousy kiss before the end credits roll. Next Stop, Wonderland is the newest indie romantic comedy to hit the screen, and like nearly all indie romantic comedies in the last year or so, it follows the chic cynic formula to a T--boy doesn't meet girl; girl doesn't meet boy; when in the hell are they gonna get together?

Hope Davis stars as Erin Castleton, an emotionally drained nurse lost in the hustle and bustle of big-city Boston. After her political activist boyfriend dumps her for the umpteenth (and final) time to go protest with the Indians in Arizona, Erin finds herself lonely and adrift in a sea of numbness. Eventually, she decides that solitude is really the best thing and that love is for chumps. Unfortunately, Erin's busybody mother places a personal ad for her, and the phone starts ringing off the hook.

Meanwhile, somewhere else in town, Alan--a nice hunky thirtysomething Italian boy--is volunteering at the Boston Aquarium and working nights to get his degree in marine biology. While Erin experiments with the men from her personal ad (basically meeting and insulting every lowly one of them), Alan wanders the streets dealing with his own emotional problems, just barely missing bumping into Erin at every turn. Clearly Erin and Alan are meant for each other, because ... well, they're the only two nice people in the entire film. I suspect true love would be easy to find if every single person in the world (except your "soul mate") were an idiotic, mean-spirited asshole.

Like the little-seen (and not very good) romantic comedy 'Til There Was You from earlier this year, Next Stop, Wonderland's central joke is to delay the inevitable meeting between its two romantic leads for the entire movie. Erin and Alan live intertwined lives (one of her personal ad respondents is his narcissistic brother), and yet they never manage to cross paths. There is much talk on both their parts about "fate" and "destiny." Like the fate-laced indie RC Sliding Doors--also from earlier this year--it's guaranteed that our hero and heroine will eventually meet and fall in love. Call it "fate." Call it "dramatic convention." Call it whatever you like.

Hope Davis--a sure candidate for the "Girls of Indie" calendar along with Parker Posey and Lili Taylor thanks to her work in The Daytrippers, The Myth of Fingerprints and the upcoming Impostors--does a fine job here. Though she's called upon to mope for most of the film, she does project a breezy charisma and a winning vulnerability. The rest of the cast hold up OK, but don't add much interesting to the mix thanks to their underdeveloped characters.

Writer/director Brad Anderson has done everything correctly according to the indie filmmakers guidebook. His camera is largely hand-held--whether he could not afford a tripod or chose to do without one simply to appear more "indie" is unclear. As a screenwriter, Anderson knows how to pen a joke or two. There are a number of amusing sequences--though Erin's wishy-washy boyfriend and overbearing mother seem a bit overdone. A subplot involving a famous pufferfish at the aquarium extends the running time a bit; but another subplot involving Alan's gambling-addict father seems rather tacked-on and ultimately leads us nowhere.

In the end, Next Stop, Wonderland is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it wants to be a sweet romantic comedy. On the other, it wants to retain its cynical indie edge. Like the would-be lovers it portrays, Wonderland is cute and occasionally appealing but never quite gets its act together.?

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