Sunday, February 15, 2009

Next Stop Wonderland

Next Stop Wonderland posterThe plot of the 1998 film Next Stop Wonderland revolves around the concept of destiny and whether or not the protagonist, Erin (Hope Davis), will overcome her solitude and realize that fate is on her side. The movie begins in Boston with Erin, a middle-aged nurse, walking home to find her boyfriend Sean (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a fervent activist, moving out. Erin is devastated by this and becomes even more introverted than she already is. Her mother, not realizing that Erin is actually content in her time alone, sets up a personal ad in the newspaper for her daughter in hopes that she will begin to date again and enjoy herself. Erin begins to glimpse a man every so often who takes the same commuter train as her (the train which coincidentally ends the line at ‘Wonderland’, the greyhound racetrack). This mystery man is Alan (Alan Gelfant) and his story runs parallel to Erin’s, but no matter how much the two seem destined for each other, their stories never seem to meet.

Alan volunteers at the city aquarium while studying to be a marine biologist; however, it soon becomes clear that Alan’s family is one of little means and that he owes his education to a loan shark named Frank who has been feeding Alan’s father’s gambling addiction for many years. Alan loathes being in debt to such a character, especially when Frank asks him to kill the aquarium’s prize balloonfish, Puff, as a favor to some of Frank’s powerful friends who had lost a land deal to the aquarium. As Alan struggles with his morals on what he should do, his best friends decide to make a bet to choose a personal ad and see who can make-out with the girl first. Alan is disgusted with their game and doesn’t participate; a fortunate coincidence seeing as the friends choose Erin’s ad and she then cleverly calls them out on their petty scheme when she discovers what they had been plotting. Meanwhile, Alan eventually gives in to Frank’s wishes and steals Puff away, but makes it look as though the piranhas ate the prize fish. Frank is elated and erases Alan’s debt, thinking that Alan would be happy to continue doing such jobs for him, but this is far from the truth.

Back in Erin’s story, just when she hits despair on account of all the lousy suitors she’s encountered, she meets a charming, Brazilian man named Andre (José Zúñiga) who is in the hospital to finish his recovery from a bout of malaria. Despite Erin’s best attempts to dissuade his romantic efforts, she finds that she is strangely attracted to him, if only because her deceased father used to vacation with her in Brazil and the fond memories seem to draw her to this Brazilian. Andre invites her to return with him to Sao Paolo, and although she feels as though she would be running away from her troubled life in Boston, she agrees. When she returns home that same day to find Sean asking her forgiveness, she exerts the fortitude which she’s learnt over the course of her blind dates and turns her back on him. Meanwhile, Alan shows his own independence from Frank as he returns Puff to the tank unharmed. He then boards the ‘Wonderland’ commuter train to head home. Here is where fate takes action and sends Erin into a traffic jam while on her way to the airport. Seeing no other alternative, she decides to catch the ‘Wonderland’ train in order to reach her plane on time. While on the train she becomes overwhelmed by the amount of people squishing against her and when she tries to leave the train she bumps into Alan and simply lays her head down in exhaustion on his shoulder. They both smile at each other when they realize that they have glimpsed one another in and around the city, but have never met. At this moment, Cupid’s arrow makes an almost audible twang in its release. Alan and Erin walk by the sea and as their sentiments and thoughts exactly mirror those of the other, they both realize that they are headed for the next stop: Happiness.

There are subtle hints of South America which are dispersed throughout Next Stop Wonderland, such as Erin’s half-hidden record album entitled “After Hours South America”, or one of her suitors who claims to be an avid collector of South American art and travels often to Brazil; yet they all depict the continent as being a tranquil and loving place in stark contrast to the busy, dreary life of Boston. Apart from Andre being the only South American character, he is also a musicologist who was collecting ethnic folk songs in Bolivia when he contracted the malaria. As sappy as it may be that he sings love songs softly in Portuguese to the women he is seducing, he’s is also the first man in the movie to see Erin for who she is. He says that she must have some of Brazil in her because she is sad and happy at the same time; she doesn’t smile but she seems content. While it’s never explained as to why Brazil would also be seen in this light, the plot does tend to showcase Brazil as a place of fond memories and new beginnings. Is Erin running away to Brazil or is she trying to run towards a new life? When she finally meets Alan, a new question arises: Which is her true ‘Wonderland’: Brazil or Boston? Although she has declared to Andre that she will return to Brazil someday, fate finally shows her that happiness doesn’t have to be found in a country which embodies pleasant memories; it can also be found right in front of you.

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