It may sound magical, but Next Stop Wonderland is prosaic at best. The title refers to the last station of the blue line on Boston's subway system. Even though the geography's important (there's a stop for the aquarium and a connector to the airport, two important destinations for the characters), the color serves as an obvious metaphor. If Erin Castleton (Hope Davis) is anything, she's blue.
But that's the only thing clear about the chilly, aloof, judgmental and frustratingly enigmatic Erin. Amazingly, the film rewards her petulant behavior by having romantic destiny (it's fate!) triumph over the commonplace emotional degradation of dating.
Director Brad Anderson (The Darien Gap), who co-wrote the script with Lyn Vaus, stacks the deck early on. A registered nurse and medical school dropout who's still mourning the death of her father, Erin is matter-of-factly dumped in the first scene by her gung-ho, left-wing activist boyfriend Sean (Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose fantastic comic sensibility raises hopes the rest of the film never fulfills).
So Erin -- who affects a tight-lipped, righteous melancholia -- finds herself thrown back into the fray by her brassy mother (Holland Taylor), who places a personal ad on her behalf. After a funny montage of men leaving creatively embellished telephone messages for her, the film slides from romantic comedy to a self-pity seminar as Erin goes on a string of hopeless blind dates. But she needn't worry about finding the right man, because Anderson has already picked out her true love.
Running on a parallel track to Erin is Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant), a nice-guy former plumber who's studying to be a marine biologist. There's a lot of hullabaloo about family obligations, gambling debts and a pufferfish, but Alan turns out to be as insipid as his intended.
Through the extensive use of bossa nova and samba on the soundtrack (Erin's also romanced by a charming Brazilian musicologist), Brad Anderson tries to orchestrate an ambience where joy is always tinged with a contented sorrow. But instead of harmony, Next Stop Wonderland just hits the same sour note.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].