'Next Stop' you'll want to stay on

August 28, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

The doorjamb in the apartment belonging to Erin Castleton, the central character in "Next Stop Wonderland," is cross-hatched with pencil marks, the improvised height chart of the family that lived in the house when it was still a home.

That telling detail tells you all you need to know about the young people who populate this wistful romantic fable, which is suffused with a poignant sense of dislocation and contingency. Veering somewhat awkwardly between the languid mood of Brazilian samba and nervous jump-cut energy, "Next Stop Wonderland" is nonetheless a convincing iteration of the enduring cinematic question: Is love a matter of fate or mere chance?

If anyone out there is thinking "Sliding Doors," they're on the right track, literally and figuratively. Like that appealing film, "Next Stop Wonderland" depends on a subway train for its deus ex machina, only this time, it's the rapid transit system of Boston. But the movie, which was written and directed by Brad Anderson, has its share of original flourishes. It's difficult to remember another romantic comedy, at least in recent memory, that has incorporated a blowfish into its narrative with such easygoing charm.

Erin, played by the fetchingly fragile-looking Hope Davis, has just been dumped by her enviro-terrorist boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) when she is paid a visit by her mother, a good-looking widow played with salty brio by Holland Taylor. Love -- well, actually, sex -- is no problem for Mrs. Castleton, who meets her liaisons while sharing cabs and airplane seats.

Seeing Erin in such desolate shape, she decides to take her daughter's love life into her own capable hands and takes out a personal ad on Erin's behalf.

While a mortified Erin endures a series of excruciating dates (a montage that Anderson handles with comic dexterity), she continually brushes up against the man she was clearly meant for: Alan (Alan Gelfant), a marine biology student who works at the aquarium and is dodging a loan shark on dry land. Most of "Next Stop Wonderland" is taken up with the question of whether Erin and Alan will actually meet or whether their romance will remain a frustrating what-if.

A major clue to the answer to that question is that "Next Stop Wonderland" is an American movie, not one of those European art films where the couple evaporates into a vague but very pretty fog of solitude. But even with a predictable ending, Anderson still manages to inject pleasant surprises into this fairy tale. (Indeed, one of the nicest surprises is Gelfant, an extraordinarily appealing actor who makes his first major screen appearance here.)

Anderson writes beautifully that "the mystery isn't how two people meet, the mystery is how they stay together." Wise words that should make filmgoers eager to hear what the filmmaker has to say next.

'Next Stop Wonderland'

L Starring Hope Davis, Alan Gelfant, Victor Argo, Jon Benjamin

Directed by Brad Anderson

Released by Miramax Films

Rated R (language)

Running time: 97 minutes

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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