Movie Review: Next Stop Wonderland -- The people make up for the plotBy Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Directed by Brad Anderson
Written by Brad Anderson and Lyn Vaus
With Hope Davis and Alan Gelfant
Creating characters is a skill. Creating characters which have only a few seconds on screen is a talent. Creating several dozen characters (all distinct and three-dimensional individuals) in one film is an art.
Next Stop Wonderland, a Boston-set romantic comedy (obvious from the Blue Line-inspired title), parades a whole gallery of compellingly weird people across the screen. That, taken together with its excellent use of the Boston locales, makes it a highly entertaining romantic comedy - an exception in the genre that, frankly speaking, has failed to produce anything worthwhile in the last few years.
The reason is quite obvious from watching Next Stop, which falls into the same trap as the good deal of modern romantic comedies: Love - both as a state and as a process - by its very nature requires two participants, and the most interesting aspect is the interaction between these two people. If you recall recent romantic comedies (such as Sleepless in Seattle or Till There Was You), you realize that they operate in a distinctly different mode: Two protagonists don't meet until the end of the movie, essentially turning it into a two-hour teaser (or, rather, a "coming attractions" preview). I don't know what's to blame for this - the prevailing notion of love as fate or destiny or something equally meaningless, or the financial success of Sleepless in Seattle (my money would be on the latter) - but the whole idea of following two people for an entire movie and having them come together at the end usually results in a movie which feels boring, pointless, and obvious.
Next Stop Wonderland has exactly this kind of plot. There's Erin, a lonely nurse, and Alan, a lonely plumber. Erin wants to end her loneliness. Alan wants to become a marine biologist. So far, so good. They both run around Boston for two hours, almost meeting a dozen times. The resulting plot ranges all the way from slight (Alan's tentative romance with a fellow student at community college) to inane (a complicated storyline concerning the kidnapping of the Boston Aquarium's mascot - don't ask). If the plot was the main aspect of this movie, I wouldn't even think of recommending it.
However, I do recommend it, and do so wholeheartedly, since the plot is only of secondary concern. What writer/director Brad Anderson really cares about are the characters, and they come in spades. All characters, ranging from a few prospective suitors who call Erin on the phone and have only a couple of seconds of screen time, to the main leads, are finely drawn and as three-dimensional as they get.
They are also laugh-out-loud funny, with every line of dialogue and every character trait adding to create a positively hilarious experience. Watching this movie feels like standing in the crowded subway train and looking at the faces of the people around you, realizing that all of them are inherently fascinating.
This impression is strengthened by the fact that Anderson directs Next Stop as a pseudo-documentary, using a shaky (but, thankfully, not too shaky) hand-held camera for most of the shots. This results in a feeling that what you are watching is a kind of a home movie, its roughness being simply a consequence of its heightened realism, a kind of a faux cinema-verite experience. The editing is a bit too hectic once in a while and the plot too silly to sustain this illusion for the entire running time, but when it works, Next Stop Wonderland weaves a charmingly unique spell.