Published August 1, 1998
Next Stop, Wonderland, written and directed by Brad Anderson, is a charming romantic comedy with a great many funny moments, though it doesn’t quite pull everything together in its rather unsatisfactory ending. But it has an excellent beginning. Erin (Hope Davis) comes home one day to find her live-in boyfriend, Sean (Phil Hoffman), moving out of their apartment in Boston and taking most of their things with him. He is leaving behind his cat for her to look after and going off to the land of the Tentoony Indians, where some radical group he is a part of is having demonstrations and sit- ins in an attempt to preserve sacred tribal lands and to stop a dam being built. He has made a videotape for her which explains all his reasons for having to leave. One of them is that she doesn’t keep up with the news. When he won’t take his cat back she clops him one and he shouts at her: “I am a man of peace! You are a woman of violence!” The next thing we see is Erin furiously scraping the “Think Globally, Act Locally” sticker off the refrigerator door.
Erin’s mother then comes to stay for the weekend. She says she is glad that Erin finally dumped “that Marxist.”
“Sean left me, mom.”
“And you let him?”
“Did I have a choice?”
“My darling, light of my life, with men, you always have a choice,” she says. Whereupon, Erin reminds her that there was not much choice when her beloved father died. Devastated by his death, she has dropped out of Harvard Medical School and is now working as a nurse. Her mother, however, is so determined to matchmake for her that she puts a personal ad in the paper in her name, and much of the film is taken up with the comic results when Erin agrees to meet with a number of the many men who reply.
Meanwhile, we are also being told the parallel story of Alan (Alan Gelfant), a plumber by trade who works at the Boston Aquarium by day and studies marine biology at night. He is a decent guy trying to remain unsullied by some rather disreputable guy-talk and also to spend his life doing what he loves. Throughout the film Erin and Alan are constantly passing one another or going to the same parties or the same bars but never meeting. Quite early on we gather that Mr Anderson sees them as being meant for each other, but are they fated to meet? Erin says “I don’t believe in fate—some unseen hand leading you up the garden path?” No, she is not convinced. But there may be a fate at work in her life nevertheless.
I think the movie is flawed by over-complication in the life of Alan: a local builder has been competing with the aquarium for a piece of land where it wants to expand and the builder wants to build a mausoleum. The aquarium wins the legal tussle. Alan’s father, another plumber, gambles away his money at the dog track. His friend, a quasi gangster called Frank (Victor Argo) helps him out with the money for his tuition, but in return he expects some favors. To wit, as a friend of the unsuccessful builder, he wants Alan to “eliminate” the balloon fish which is one of the most popular exhibits at the aquarium. It’s a funny bit, but too remote from the theme of true love and fate. Likewise, Erin’s prospective affair with a glamorous Brazilian seems a gratuitous presence. But a generous quantity of laughs and a heart-warming conclusion make it worth seeing on date night.