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Review: 'Next Stop Wonderland' not much of a destination

Web posted on: Friday, August 28, 1998 9:37:29 AM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Since it's pretty much my favorite genre, I'm more likely to put up with glaring flaws in romantic comedies than I am in any other kind of movie. This is mostly because, to a large degree, I'm a proponent of the "this could really happen" school of movie watching. People want to fall in love (and, I'd like to think, actually do fall in love) all the time, so I get drawn into stories where nice, decent folks tirelessly search the cold, cold Earth for that Special Someone. Just as long as the director doesn't get too cute with the material, I'll cut everybody a little bit of slack.

Brad Anderson's "Next Stop Wonderland," which is getting a split decision from yours truly (half a thumb up, if you crave an ill-defined generalization), is cute, no doubt about it, but in annoying ways that are fast becoming the calling card of the format. I'm sure it's very tempting to do the simple thing with this kind of movie; this is why 50 percent of all romantic comedies made in the past 10 years end with people smooching in the East Village during a rainstorm. Lately, though, a lot of writer/directors are over-compensating by opting for the "Sleepless in Seattle" storytelling structure, during which two people who are "destined" for each other keep missing the opportunity to meet, then get together right before the credits roll.

As much as I like Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, I never cared for "Sleepless in Seattle" for that very reason. There might be some funny scenes in the movie, but even a caveman knows that you can't start a fire without rubbing the sticks together. Shaking the sticks at each other from opposite ends of the country for two hours seems like a monumental waste of time, if you ask me. Once Nora Ephron finally bothered to ignite things on top of the Empire State Building, I just didn't give a damn anymore.

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Disgruntled daughter, pushy mom

So it goes for "Next Stop Wonderland." Hope Davis stars as Erin, a pretty but disgruntled nurse living in Boston who's being dropped by her (hugely unappealing) ecologist boyfriend as the movie begins. Erin is, too say the least, a little bit leery of the dating game, even though she's just now starting to get back into it. Her mother (Holland Taylor) wants desperately for her daughter to find someone, in that "pushy mom" way that you see all the time on TV. This is script problem number one.

There are several long stretches that seem more like sitcom passages than an actual motion picture, but Anderson has a nice touch with smart, alienated dialogue. It kept me hanging in there during the situational lulls. One day, Mom secretly puts a classified ad in a local paper, describing Erin in those sweeping, romantic terms that people use when they've gotten desperate for company. Erin, pretty unbelievably, winds up getting over 60 responses to the ad.

There's then a montage during which we see several of the men who are calling her. They talk to Erin in a variety of ill-advised ways, either getting too grandiose about themselves or displaying too much self-loathing. It's somewhat amusing, but, it's got to be said, you've seen a variation on this a million times before. It goes on for quite a while, too, before Anderson tires of it. None of this progresses the story an inch; it's just a jokey way of establishing what should be a given in this situation -- there are a lot of losers out there.

Nearly isn't good enough

One group of those losers consists of a bunch of friends who bet each other that they can score with the girl in the ad. One friend, Alan (Alan Gelfant) is a semi-studly guy who works as a diver at the Boston Aquarium while attending night school. Alan wants nothing to do with the bet, but he often lurks in the general vicinity of his friends, so this gives him the chance to possibly come into close contact with Erin without ever really meeting her.

We're supposed to be sad when Erin and Alan are right near each other and their eyes don't lock, but, and I want to make this absolutely clear, I don't care about two people who nearly meet each other!! I want 'em to go have dinner and talk and laugh and hug and kiss! If you wanna watch people nearly meet, go hang out at the mall, randomly pick two shoppers, and pretend that they're destined to be soul mates. Then swoon when they almost rub shoulders at The Gap.

A film for singles hoping 'Next Stop' will be 'Wonderland'

To some degree, this approach to a script opens up possibilities for the writer because he gets to deal with the two people's stories separately, hopefully building a little tension in the process. I understand the reasoning behind it. It's just that no tension mounts when you have to continually cut away from the supposed participants in a mating dance before they can actually dance in front of each other. The whole point of the genre is that the two people would like to eventually experience a romance, so get the "eventually" part over with quickly. I'm paying to see a lip-lock, maybe a fight, and another lip-lock! That's where the fun is.

There are also a couple of terribly misguided subplots concerning Alan and some money he owes a loan shark. It doesn't make any sense at all, especially when you're wanting to get back to Erin and her slowly creeping trajectory towards eternal happiness. Both characters also dabble in other romantic prospects, but for no good reason, really. To paraphrase Lou Reed -- that's just the water boy. The real game's not over there.

Davis, in particular, is a very appealing actress, and some of the supporting players are quite good, so this isn't a total washout by any means. As I've already said, the dialogue's there, and so are the knowing quirks, but Anderson needs to focus on his structure. He might have a bright future ahead of him if he starts introducing his main characters to each other before the movie is over.

"Next Stop Wonderland" is slight, but amiable enough. There's a little bad language, but that's about all. It's all hand-held and over-anxiously edited together. Brace yourself for a possible quick-cutting headache. Rated PG-13. 104 minutes.

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