The sweetly sad protagonist of the intermittently charming "Next Stop Wonderland" occupies familiar emotional terrain. Erin, as illuminated in a subdued portrayal by Hope Davis, is a hard-working nurse at a Boston hospital who's suddenly single after being dumped by her hippie-dippy boyfriend.
She spends her days walking in the rain, recalling vacations spent in Brazil and resigning herself to a life without love. Evenings are spent at a neighborhood bar, where she and several colleagues gather to drink and discuss the finer points of modern romance. On occasion, while traveling on the subway, her eyes meet those of a friendly stranger, later revealed as Alan (Alan Gelfant), an aquarium worker and older-than-traditional-age college student.
Mom (Holland Taylor), as vivacious and outgoing as Erin is glum and introspective, decides to upend the workaday existence of her daughter. The plan is to advertise the 20-something's attributes with an advertisement in the personals and watch what happens.
"I don't believe in fate," Erin complains to her overprotective parent. "Men need women. Women don't need men." The mildly likeable characters in director Brad Davis' romantic comedy spent the bulk of the film attempting to disprove those statements.
The film's funniest sequence, borrowed in part from the montage of male come-ons in Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It," has Erin meeting some of the 64 suitors who respond to her ad. Nearly all are pathetic. One man accidentally rolls his wedding ring onto the bar while struggling for change. A scary, older military veteran says, incongruously, that he's attending divinity school. Alan's attorney brother, in a significant coincidence, is one of several pals who bets on a race to bed with the nurse. She discovers their little contest, thanks to the friends' recurring mangling of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The story's other strand, woven rather awkwardly with Erin's story, is the tale of the nice-enough, always-unshaven Alan. He's an aspiring marine biologist who's juggling his studies with full-time work as a plumber. Erin and Alan don't make their inevitable love connection until the last five minutes of the film -- after several unlikely detours. She's successfully wooed by a Brazilian musicologist, who offers impromptu vocal performances of bossa nova songs, a promise to make her happy and an immediate vacation to South America. Alan hesitates, then falls headlong into a relationship with a vivacious classmate just before his fateful encounter with Erin.
"Next Stop Wonderland," although flawed by choppy editing and photography that bathes everything in a gritty gloom, is a nice alternative to the glossy romantic comedies regularly churned out by Hollywood.
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