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Next Stop Wonderland

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 2 October 1998

  Directed by Brad Anderson.

Starring Hope Davis, Alan Gelfant,
Jose Zuniga, Cara Buono, Victor Argo,
Roger Rees, Holland Taylor and Robert Klein.

Written by Brad Anderson and Lyn Vaus.

Sometimes, a picture will evoke such a pleasurable response at the beginning -- that here, or once, is something that's new and fresh and informed -- that, no matter what else comes afterwards, the effect can be transportive. The beginning of this picture depicts a breakup between Erin (Hope Davis, excellent in last year's The Daytrippers) and Sean (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has rapidly become an Actor to Watch), two people who have been living together in a Boston walk-up: Erin comes home to find Sean's car all packed and ready to go, and they proceed through all the pleadings, wheedlings, ranklings, the carefully rehearsed bits that don't come out right, and the responses of bewilderment and betrayal in quick succession. ("What's that on top of the car...?" "Here, you take the cat.") The sequence that follows shows Erin adjusting to what's happened, accompanied by the soft, gently swaying sound of Brazilian bossa-nova music. (Antonio Carlos Jobim, along with some original music by Claudio Ragazzi, vocals by Astrud Gilberto, and capped by a smashing rendition of Jobim's "Desafinado" by Sarah Vaughan.) There is a reason for the choice of music, explained later, but initially it's not the type of accompaniment you would expect for such a scene. But it works: the mood of melancholy and resignation along with the dichotomous music establishes the right starting point for what follows.

The plot itself turns on a personals ad which Erin's mother (Holland Taylor) places in the Boston "Herald" without Erin knowing about it, and a small group of male friends who decide to answer it in a prankish way. But the film itself actually turns out to be about convergence, and bogus-ness. Erin makes a snap decision and decides to follow up on some of the responses to the ad, and she meets a succession of men, each of whom winds up revealing, in sometimes surprising ways, why they would be ultimately unsuitable for Erin. Erin herself turns out to have developed an adept way at delivering an observation that busts some of the overconfident guys flat. (A skill you sense she's picked up after years of dealing with such jokers.) The man she eventually does take a chance with, Andre (Jose Zuniga), is someone whom she meets during her job as a hospital nurse. He is a native Brazilian, and Erin first responds to him because of memories she has of living in Brazil, as a child, with her father. (Hence, the choice of soundtrack music.) Andre acts devotedly towards Erin, and eventually she agrees to fly back with him to Brazil, but, in the meantime, she keeps having indications that somehow, for some reason, this is not exactly the right thing for her to do.

While this is occurring, the film skips over to follow another character, Alan (Alan Montiero), the son of a plumber who is in his mid-thirties and works at the Boston Aquarium, and who is working hard to earn a degree in marine biology, but has to continually contend with diversions and unexpected interruptions, whether it's putting in unpaid time to get the aquarium's pipes to work properly, or, even, to contend with the gambling debts racked up by his father and being handled by an amiable underworld figure, Frank (Victor Ergo), who acts more like an uncle to Alan than a mobster. One of Alan's classmates, Julie (Cara Buono), keeps trying to convince Alan to become her tutor, not just because he's smart (Alan's teacher, to his class: "Does somebody know the answer other than Alan?") but because she has an incorrigible crush on him. Alan doesn't feel the same way about Julie, but he doesn't want to hurt her, either, so he tries to meet her halfway in a friendly manner, even if it's bound to get him in trouble. At approximately the same time in the story, both Erin and Alan find themselves in the same situation, standing on the brink of relationships with people who may not be the right fit for them, but doing so whether out of compassion or concern or simply because of the deep-down feeling that they might not again be wanted so much and in such a way by another person. Meantime, Erin and Alan, who don't know each other, have glancing, fleeting encounters -- over a telephone, or through adjacent restaurant windows -- and during those moments they both sense something conducive between. But then something immediate happens, and, the contact is broken, the moment is past.

Brad Anderson, who directed the picture (the title refers to a station on the Boston municipal railway line) and co-wrote it with Lyn Vaus (who also plays a supporting role), has gotten some good performances out of the two lead players -- which he would need to, otherwise we wouldn't want to see them get together and find out what happens when they do. The casting choice of Alan Gelfant is fairly daring: Gelfant is lanky, with silver-flecked black hair, and he is not conventionally handsome -- his looks are craggy, even, daresay, cadaverous at times -- yet he has a screen charisma and charm that comes out from inside. You can see him as the type of essentially amiable guy that always hangs around the outer rim of things as long as he stays on his own.

In telling the story, Anderson, working with an adroit cinematographer, Uta Briesewitz, keeps the camera very close to the characters, giving the visuals, and the film, a vertiginous, untethered feel. Anderson also did the editing, and he plumbs for and finds the right rhythm for each of the individual sequences, while also allowing the film to easily skip back and forth between Erin and Alan, sometimes with a rimshot, or even debonair, manner. Overall, though, the film is kept in an anxious, jumpy manner as it shows Erin and Alan drifting, or being drawn into, different directions. The purpose is to show how, once their paths do come together, the picture smooths out and becomes more harmonious, more easy. Up until then, it can seem jangly, even maddening to watch. Anderson crams a lot of information into much of the mise-en-scene, and it seems difficult sometimes to take everything in -- you wish he would find a way to space things out just a little bit more, so you don't feel like you're either overloaded or missing something in the course of the hub-bub that objectifies Erin and Alan's individual struggles; you also have to take it on faith that the filmmakers will eventually devise a way to make everything jive in your head before the conclusion. In that way, the film is ambitious -- you don't get a real feeling that anything Anderson and Vaus put into the film needs to be pruned away, because it would somehow diminish it -- and even challenging for an audience. It could be argued that, for a film which means to expose how people become poseurs to get men or women to do and act the way they want to, the picture itself takes an affectatious style and approach to do so.

But Anderson has taken what could have been a conventional love story told in conventional fashion and tried to present it in a voice and style that it can call its own, and in that respect it's a good, perfectly respectable try, and I wouldn't have wanted it to do so any other way. You come away from this film with many things, from the grey-green light that falls on Hope Davis' face in the opening scenes, to the perfectly charming encounter she has in one scene with a bookseller played by Jeremy Geist. Looking back on it, the picture puts one in a 1960s Pauline Kael-esque quandary, in that it has faults, but you find yourself, in an increasingly unbegrudging way, admiring it all the same.


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