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NEXT STOP, WONDERLAND

by: Michael Dequina

A fresh location, likable lead actors, a cute concept. The destination of the romantic comedy Next Stop Wonderland would appear to be moviegoers' hearts. But as charming as the film often is, something crucial feels missing on this journey.

That something missing is not the main character, Erin Castleton, played with a nice balance of edge and sensitivity by Hope Davis. Erin, a registered nurse in Boston, is soured on love after her political activist boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) ditches her to take part in a protest. The last thing on her mind is finding a new man, but her freespirited socialite mother (Holland Taylor) takes out a personal ad in Erin's name. Suddenly, Erin finds herself fielding the romantic interests of a number of not-so-gentlemanly callers.

Of course, the ideal man for her is not among the ad respondents. Could that elusive guy be former plumber/aspiring marine biologist Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant)? Alan is a nice, upstanding guy who, when not attending school full time, volunteers at the Boston Aquarium and tries to raise money to pay off a loan shark (Victor Argo). Alan and Erin's paths frequently cross, but in the film's central conceit, keep on narrowly missing each other, creating a "will they or won't they" romantic tension.

Or at least that's the presumption made by director Brad Anderson and his co-writer, Lyn Vaus (who appears in the film as one of Erin's suitors). As pleasant as Next Stop Wonderland is, never did I get the feeling that Alan was truly the guy for Erin. He's certainly nice, but Anderson and Vaus never establish any concrete reason why these two should connect other than the fact that they, the filmmakers, want them to. Hence, any rooting interest I had in their meeting came from less an ardent interest in a love connection than a simple curiosity as to what would happen.

Still, the film holds a quiet, unassuming appeal, due to some witty moments (an extended sequence in which Erin interviews her ad respondents is a comic highlight) and, most especially, the endearing performances by Davis and Gelfant. While one may not be terribly invested in them as a pair, they are each so likable that one is definitely invested in them as individual personalities. If that weren't the case, the ultralightweight Next Stop Wonderland could have easily been Next Stop Slumberland.

RATING: *** (out of *****)

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