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'Wonder' Lust

[whitespace] Next Stop Wonderland Hope Springs Eternal: Hope Davis goes looking for love in 'Next Step Wonderland.'

The 'Mass-Asses' of Boston make the dating game a no-win proposition

By Richard von Busack

A YOUNG FILMMAKER named Brad Anderson seems to be claiming Boston for his own. Anderson's 1995 film, The Darien Gap, follows a character named Lyn (Lyn Vaus), a Hub City no-hoper longing to skip town for the Pan-American Highway. Anderson's new film, Next Stop Wonderland, which is also set in Boston, has the best bossa-nova soundtrack in 30 years. Astrid Gilberto's breathy, nerveless vocals tint the film. Bossa nova isn't edgy music; its plaintiveness and muted optimism mirror the moods of the film. We're not meant to feel the loneliness of the heroine, Erin (Hope Davis), too sharply.

Erin's live-in boyfriend has just dropped her. She hasn't yet recovered from the loss when her mother places a personal ad for her daughter in the daily paper. Out of lack of anything better to do, Erin plays along, going to meet various unsuitable men at a local bar. Anderson cuts the dates into a comic cavalcade of wrong types as funny as the Dog Parade in She's Gotta Have It. The worst men represent an aggravating type that can be sometimes found in Boston. I've heard them called "Mass-Asses," robustly sexist yet with only a remote idea of how babies are made, both degreed and pedigreed but extremely coarse and proudly ignorant.

Cross-cutting away from these troubles, we see the man really meant for Erin. The film's squishy title refers to a beach-side dog track called Wonderland, in East Boston on the Blue Line of the MTA. Out there in the hinterlands lives Alan (the Ray Sharkeyish Alan Gelfant), working at the aquarium and going to school as an ichthyologist. The aquarium is expanding, taking up space developers had sought for condominiums. A developer named Loesser (comedian Robert Klein) is backed by the Mob, which orders a revenge hit on Puffy the puffer fish, the aquarium's mascot. Alan, in debt to a loan shark, is supposed to carry out the hit himself. Instead, Alan kidnaps Puffy and hides him in a tank at his apartment.

Next Stop Wonderland is best in its cool observation of Boston. Anderson has a sometimes touchy relationship with the city; one character calls Boston "nothing but hospitals, bars and graveyards." But Anderson's gone forth into it to show both its age and its handsomeness. Davis, who tends to be a low-cal substitute for Gwyneth Paltrow, thaws out pleasantly under Anderson's direction. This often staid actress even has a witty drunk scene. All of her terrible dates brandish Emerson's line about a foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds--the Dogs wrongly attribute the quote to everyone from Marx to Cicero. Finding one date she likes more than the others (thanks to too many pints of Sam Adams), Erin pats his leg and murmurs, "You're my little hobgoblin."

You'd never know a man directed Next Stop Wonderland--and that's a compliment. The only way to construct a good date movie is to guess what goes on in the minds of the opposite sex. Anderson seems to have been listening to women. Since Boston isn't famous as a city of men who listen to women, Anderson may be able to dominate its underground filmmaking scene, just as Woody Allen annexed Manhattan during the 1970s.

Next Stop Wonderland (R; 96 min.), directed and written by Brad Anderson, photographed by Uta Briesewitz and starring Hope Davis and Alan Gelfant.

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From the August 27-September 2, 1998 issue of Metro.

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