' Cinema Romantico: Next Stop Wonderland: Sixteen Years Later

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Next Stop Wonderland: Sixteen Years Later

“It doesn’t matter how you meet Mr. or Mrs. Right. The real mystery is what keeps two people together after they meet?” At this, Hope Davis, playing lovelorn nurse Erin Castleton, appears momentarily dumbfounded, as if the universe’s whole code has just been cracked. But then she just sort of re-resumes the laid-back misery that has afflicted her most of the film. You might say she’s……saudade. That's the word the Brazilian gent our dear Erin encounters later in the film employs to describe her. It is a word, as NPR recounted less than a month ago, that Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo termed: "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy." In the film it's just a bit more on the nose: "You are sad and happy at the same time."


In the story of me, it is generally accepted that my incalculable obsession with all things fate, particularly at the cinema, was born circa 2001, with the John Cusack – Kate Beckinsale rom com “Serendipity” that most of the world is indifferent to (or actively dislikes) but which I cherish like “Casablanca”. Cinematic scholars, however, upon more thorough inspection would deem this a mislabeling of my karmic headwater, pointing instead to the whimsical Sundance success story of 1998, “Next Stop Wonderland.” Oh, they’ll tell you 1998 was the year of two asteroid movies, but it was also the year of parallel movies involving parallel storylines about the eternal destiny of romance. “Sliding Doors” was released in April. “Next Stop Wonderland” was released in August.

“Sliding Doors” has a better pedigree, primarily due to the presence of then rising star Gwyneth Paltrow as its leading lady. “Next Stop Wonderland” had Hope Davis who up until then might have been best known (?) – outside of hardcore indie circles – as “French Ticket Agent” in “Home Alone.” I don’t mean to recast these films as rivals sixteen years after the fact, but merely to note the coincidental curiosity of two films focusing on divine will and how I saw them both at the same theater and how the latter spoke to me and the former did not. Perhaps, you see, because it was meant to be this way. “Next Stop Wonderland” made me love Hope Davis so much that I watched “The Daytrippers” and gave “The Myth of Fingerprints” a whirl when it came on the Sundance channel one night and I noticed she was in it. The latter is only, like, my third favorite movie ever. Who doesn’t believe in destiny?

I had not seen “Next Stop Wonderland” in at least a decade. I suppose I returned to it because Phillip Seymour Hoffman (billed as “Phil Hoffman” in Stephen Holden’s New York Times review) is featured in a bit part as Davis’s loutish activist boyfriend who breaks up with her at the film’s opening to send it galloping on its way. He’s funny and over-caffeinated, and a key cog despite his little screen time, but this is Hope’s film and – if you will please, please forgive me for a momentary bout of schlocky prose – a re-watch on a Sunday morning when the temperature was just beginning to rise and the snow was just beginning to melt (it has since snowed again, but never mind) reminded me of the hope I felt the first time I watched it in an era when you still came home to check your answering machine to find the girl you really, really dug hadn't called you back.

The plot hinges on her character navigating the Boston dating scene. Her mother (Holland Taylor) places a personal ad in the paper which leads to Davis’s Erin going on date after date after date. The parallel story involves Alan (Alan Gelfant), a plumber, following in the footsteps of his father, but both clinging to and charging after dreams of becoming a marine biologist. He’s a genuine guy in a noxious urban dating scene filled with posers and jackasses.


He and Erin continually come close to meeting, but never quite do, and that makes it sound like another in an extensive line of plots that are merely formal exercises in prevention, rigged so that our characters’ true love is close but not quite……until the end. When it is. And while there are a couple close encounters and a phone call that isn’t, “Next Stop Wonderland” actually comes across like the antithesis to such systematic plotting.

Director and Editor Brad Anderson chooses for the majority of his soundtrack not the hits of 1998 but an assortment of Brazilian bossa nova. It is perhaps his strongest managerial decision, providing "Next Stop Wonderland" the remarkable sensation of being alive, the story comically untangling itself as it progresses rather than certain things happening in a certain order to finish at a certain point. As such, the film becomes less about these two winding up in one another's arms then these two learning to be comfortable with themselves and assured in their own skin.

This is what makes the ending the happiest of all - it's not the universe conspiring for ninety minutes to bring these two together, but the universe waiting until it seems convinced these two have figured out their shit. Once they have, it draws back the curtain, points them to the sunset on the beach and lets them fall into an embrace. It says: karma is on our side. Sixteen years later, that's a message I still find reason to believe in.

1 comment:

s. said...

Love this movie. And like your review. An excellent point about working out their own respective issues before being able to meet and have a fair shot at something real and long-term.