Fishing for love

They meet—in an aquarium.

The problem with cross-cutting between two stories—in fiction or film—is that one story is bound to be more compelling than the other. The result can be almost more unbearable than simply watching a bad film. Just as we get settled into the more interesting story, the other comes a-tappin’ on our shoulder.

Next Stop Wonderland

directed by Brad Anderson

starring Hope Davis, Alan Gelfant

starts Friday, theater TBA

The problem is compounded in Next Stop Wonderland by the presence of actress Hope Davis (The Daytrippers, The Myth of Fingerprints). At times it seems as if she’s picking her way through landmines rather than walking among fellow cast members—she’s that much better than the rest. We can’t stand to be away from her for an instant. Still, so finely drawn is her character and so light is director Brad Anderson’s touch that Next Stop Wonderland turns out to be a pleasant diversion rather than an exercise in frustration.

Davis plays a grumpy night-shift nurse named Erin. She’s just ended a relationship with a politically correct shlub and is officially fed up with love. Anderson has said he tried to imbue this character with the happy/sad spirit of bossa nova, which twines through the film, amplifying the actress’s deflated romanticism. Anderson’s sharply edited, rhythmic views of gray Boston provide a visual riff on the same theme.

The film cuts between Erin’s life and the life of Alan (Alan Gelfant), a marine biology student who works at the local aquarium. Erin and he don’t know it, but we do: They’re soulmates, just missing each other time and again as they go about their days. Problem is, Alan’s appeal is decidedly wan next to Erin’s cranky, overtired, sad-eyed charm. He’s also the victim of an incredibly ill-written and dull plot line that gives in to one of the worst impulses in indie cinema: the caper subplot. Alan must kidnap Puff the Blowfish from the aquarium for some totally unexplained reason that will get him in good with a loan shark. These elements conspire to make the love between Erin and Alan seem something less than destined.

Meanwhile, Erin’s mom has placed a personals ad in a local paper for her. As the Puff subplot is abandoned, the focus is turned to the gentlemen callers who try to win the favor of the fair and fierce Erin. At this point we find ourselves in a pretty good little movie. The dialogue picks up, delivering absurdist lines that play well against Erin’s habitual look of dismayed disbelief. One caller tells her: “I’m looking for a woman who’s tall… yet clean.”