Next Stop, Wonderland

on August 21, 1998 by Ray Greene
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   Romantic comedies were the next big thing at Sundance this year, and "Next Stop, Wonderland" was probably the biggest of them all, if not quite the best.
   You want big? We're talking bidding-war big. We're talking Miramax-chief-Harvey-Weinstein-laying-out-a-cool-six-mil-of-Disney's-dough-for-world-rights big. And there was big talk about this one, too, as when Harvey W. justified what some claimed was an overzealous purchase by saying of Miramax's relationship with "Next Stop, Wonderland's" writer-director-editor, "We're not just buying a movie, we're going into the Brad Anderson business."
   Kind of gives you the willies, doesn't it? It sure sent chills up and down the spines of the thousands of wannabe filmkers who clogged the snowbound streets of Park City for this year's festival, many of whom wound up standing in line in 20 degree temperatures for a glimpse of the breakout feature from indie film's latest wunderkind. Overheard in front of a Park City screening room was one blue-faced, runny-nosed film hopeful who spoke for his entire generation when he said that he'd freeze to death to see "Next Stop, Wonderland," because "I just have to see what six million dollars looks like." Ah, youthful idealism.
   The pertinent question is whether or not "Next Stop, Wonderland" can live up to a build-up like that. The answer, of course, is, "What film could?" We're talking about a low-budget production, folks. A glorified home movie, featuring a starless cast that runs the gamut from the ideal (female lead Hope Davis) to the so-so (male lead Alan Gelfant) to the "Gee, I thought he was dead" (stand-up comic Robert Klein, who plays the villain, for cryin' out loud).
   Indie films are, by their nature, films for which allowances should be made. So, allowing for the fact that Miramax may never get its money out of this one, and for the additional fact that Brad Anderson doesn't seem like the kind of director who's ready for anything like the level of hype he received at the fest, "Next Stop, Wonderland" is still an enjoyable and accomplished bit of business--a "chick flick," as the chowderheads who go to nothing but action movies like to call anything with a bit of sentiment to it, and one that at times stands at or near the level of some of the best recent examples of the form.
   The structural stunt to "Next Stop, Wonderland" is that it's a romantic comedy in which the audience knows right away that the two protagonists are made for each other, but doesn't know if they'll ever get together, because they haven't met yet. Both Erin Castleton (Davis) and Alan Montiero (Gelfant) are failures at love, and getting close to throwing in the towel. Erin is so desperate, her nosy mom buys her a personal ad as a subtle hint she should get out more--a gift Erin resents bitterly, until curiosity gets the best of her, and she begins accessing her voicemail and going out on blind dates. Alan, meanwhile, lives for his job at the Boston Aquarium, which is jeopardized by an overly complex and somewhat contrived subplot involving his father's gambling debts and a mob request that Alan "hit" the aquarium's star attraction, a blowfish named Puff.
   A series of near-misses that almost but don't quite bring Erin and Alan together are what follows, which is why Anderson may have decided to put his editing credit on the same title card as his credit for directing (as in "Directed and Edited by Brad Anderson"). Cross-cutting is what "Next Stop, Wonderland" is all about--that, and the little electric charge people who are "made for each other" seem to get every time they come within a hundred yards of each other in modern romantic comedies. Will Erin and Alan get together? Would Harvey Weinstein pay $6 million bucks for a tragedy?
   Cheerful, accomplished and straightforwardly commercial, "Next Stop Wonderland" is basically the second best version of "Sleepless in Seattle" ever made--and that's not a criticism. "Sleepless" was splendid, and it grossed well over $100 million at the boxoffice, or approximately 17 times what Miramax paid to go into the Brad Anderson business. That makes the margin of error on "Next Stop, Wonderland" pretty reasonable by almost any standard.
   So get out your handkerchiefs and cross your fingers. If Harvey Weinstein knows something this reviewer doesn't, a star, or at least a runaway boxoffice success, may have just been born.    Starring Hope Davis, Alan Gelfant and Holland Taylor. Directed by Brad Anderson. Written by Brad Anderson and Lyn Vaus. Produced by Mitchell B. Robbins. A Miramax release. Comedy. Running time: 104 min.
Tags: romance, Hope Davis, Brad Anderson, Alan Gelfant, Holland Taylor, family
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