The idea of destiny, especially the notion that two people are fated to meet and fall in love, is a load of crap, but a surprising number of people buy it. Probably for that reason it has proven to be a fairly popular component in movie romances, City of Angels and Sliding Doors being two recent examples. The latest picture celebrating life's whimsical turns is Next Stop Wonderland, starring the always watchable Hope Davis (The Myth of Fingerprints, The Daytrippers). A hit at 1997's Sundance Festival, the film is smart enough, and just cynical enough, not to alienate skeptical viewers, although director/co-writer/editor Brad Anderson clearly counts himself among the spiritually faithful.

Set in Boston, the movie is structured like Claude Lelouch's 1974 And Now My Love, which follows the lives of two strangers -- a man and a woman -- whose paths come perilously close to converging but never actually do until the final moments of the film, when they fall in love at first sight. Because, of course, it was meant to be.

The would-be lovers in Next Stop Wonderland (Wonderland is a subway station) are Erin (Davis), a smart, attractive, but chronically depressed night-shift nurse, and Alan (Alan Gelfant), an ambitious ex-plumber pursuing his dream of becoming a marine biologist.

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Dumped by her slovenly, self-absorbed, Greenpeace/Save the Whales-and-all-the-Indian-tribes-too boyfriend Sean (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Erin becomes bitter, cranky, and decidedly negative. Her stylish, high-powered mother (Holland Taylor, wonderful at projecting an Unsinkable Molly Brown vivaciousness while also quietly exuding some well-guarded vulnerability) tries to rouse her from her torpor, going so far as to place an ad in a newspaper's personals column in Erin's name.

Erin, who mopes around while insisting she is happy being alone, finally gives in and checks the messages from her prospective suitors. Sixty-two men have phoned, and in a deftly handled, very funny sequence, she proceeds to meet each of them at a bar. The men range from hopeless losers to attractive assholes -- the kind who lie and say they're single. Nearly all of them possess an inflated self-image, and each one spouts the same stupid come-ons.

Meanwhile Alan spends his days at the New England Aquarium as a volunteer diver (swimming around inside a huge fish tank, doing whatever it is volunteer divers do). The rest of the time he's at school, where he fends off the advances of a randy classmate, or he's drinking with his brother and his brother's friends (whose careless attitude about women he abhors). Alan is also shown trying to pay off a growing debt to a loan shark.

Anderson and his co-writer Lyn Vaus (who, just for the record, is a man) come up with some clever, near-miss scenarios for their two protagonists: They almost meet at the aquarium, they frequent the same bar (albeit at different hours), they pass each other continually on the subway (one on the platform, the other inside the train).

The script contains some extremely choice lines, most of them observations on the male species. It's a safe bet that only women in the audience will appreciate the remarks; a pity, given that many men would benefit greatly from pondering such dialogue. While the men here aren't as reprehensibly caddish as in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men, they still have much to answer for. Kudos to Anderson and Vaus for painting such an unflattering but honest portrait of members of their own gender. (And no, not all the male characters are schmucks, just the majority of them.)

Unfortunately the script also has its weaknesses. As good as Davis is, the character she plays never seems to grow. When we meet Erin she is droopy and morose, and it's difficult to believe she became that way only after Sean dumped her. (What was she doing with an annoying slob like Sean anyway?) Even her mother notes that Erin has been unhappy for many years. The film suggests but never declares that Erin hasn't yet recovered from her beloved father's death; his passing obviously had something to do with her decision to drop out of Harvard Medical School. But that story line is never explored.

Furthermore, the droopy and morose Erin has practically nothing in common with the sly, very together woman who faces the onslaught of suitors who have answered the personal ad. When she finally meets a man she thinks she might like (no, not Alan, but rather a sexy Brazilian musicologist played by Jose Zuniga), she still blows hot and cold. Even when she encounters Alan -- and given the film's premise, you know she's going to -- she doesn't seem any different than in the first scene. Whatever happened to character development?

One explanation for this, believe it or not, can be found in the film's musical score, which consists almost exclusively of bossa nova and samba numbers. Apparently Brazilian music registers happiness and sadness simultaneously, and Erin, who loves the music, is supposed to embody both emotions. For those of us who can hum only a few bars of "The Girl from Ipanema," this explanation doesn't carry much water, and Erin ends up seeming inadequately defined; this lack of definition gives the film a sort of hodgepodge feel.

That impression is accentuated by the camera work, which favors a shaky, hand-held look and a preponderance of closeups and tight medium shots. The avant-garde, film-school style fits the story well but definitely gives the picture a forced, low-budget indie feel. While too many things about the story don't ring true for the film as a whole to work, there is enough in Next Stop Wonderland to keep the viewer wide awake and entertained.

Next Stop Wonderland.
Directed by Brad Anderson. Written by Brad Anderson and Lyn Vaus. Starring Hope Davis, Alan Gelfant, and Holland Taylor.

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