Among the myriad wrongs that Hollywood has committed, consider this: No studio has ever cast Hope Davis as the lead in a romantic comedy. Along with bossa nova and Boston, Davis is a key element in Brad Anderson’s anti-formulaic Next Stop, Wonderland. If you find Sleepless in Seattle cloying and less than credible, if you suspect that the libidos of Meg and Gywneth are cathected onto their mirrors, then Next Stop, Wonderland might be your kind of movie. And even if you go for those wide-screen, digitally enhanced Hollywood jobs, it’s possible you’ll find what you were missing in Anderson’s affectionate and smartly understated rendering of a familiar genre.
Erin (Hope Davis) has just been abandoned by her lefty live-in boyfriend. The crisis in confidence that caused her to take up with such a self-serving jerk and also to drop out of Harvard Medical School and settle for a career in nursing has something to do with the death of her poet father and the insistent presence of her panicky mother. Erin is just beginning to enjoy being the sole occupant of her pretty Boston apartment when her mother takes it upon herself to place an ad for her daughter in the personals.
In a parallel Boston universe, Alan (Alan Gelfant) has left his father’s plumbing business to study marine biology. Alan has parent problems too. His father’s compulsive gambling leads to local mobster pressure on Alan. He’s tapped to do a hit on a beloved resident of the Boston aquarium, Puffy the blowfish. Does that sound whimsical? It is, but Anderson grounds whimsy in the effluvia of daily life. The “Wonderland” of the title, for example, is, in fact, the last stop on one of Boston’s subway lines. For the riders of that line, Erin and Alan included, the conductors’ routine announcement, “Next stop, Wonderland,” is devoid of magic or metaphor. The entire movie is about preparing Erin and Alan to hear those three words as an invitation to another way of living in this imperfect world.
Twisting a traditional romantic comedy structure, Anderson and his coscreenwriter Lyn Vaus invent one sight gag after another to prevent Erin and Alan from meeting head-on while letting us know that they’re right for each other. Each of them is put through various trials, in order to find themselves before they find each other. In Erin’s case, some of those trials are dates with men who answered her mother’s personal ad—a hilarious array of frauds and losers.
Here, as in his less polished but more complicated first feature, The Darien Gap, Anderson constructs characters that are filled with ambivalence and whose actions are always overdetermined. And in Davis, whose mobile face can express a dozen different categories of irony, he’s found an ideal actress. Cheeky, wry, wistful, acerbic, Davis carries the picture. The actors are all quite good, but she takes the film to another level. Anderson can’t bear to cut away from her for too long and he’s right not to try, although the resulting imbalance between the Erin story and the Alan story causes the film to lose some of its impetus going into the final stretch.
The style of the filmmaking, the freewheeling handheld camera movement, the associative editing, and the buoyant Brazilian score convey Anderson’s sense that chance plays a major role in our lives and that what’s happening on the periphery is often more important than what’s staring us in the face.
Having zeroed in on Anderson as a commercial talent, Miramax seems to have persuaded him (as they did Chris Cherot, director of the bleaker romantic comedy Hav Plenty) to change the ending of his movie. The new scenes—one is sappy, the other meanspirited—put a cork on Next Stop, Wonderland‘s effervescence.
A sequel of sorts to Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort is the most outrageous argument against the little black dress ever committed to film. Made in 1967, just three years after Umbrellas, the film is a showcase for two ingenue beauties, Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac, who twirl through their scenes in sleeveless sherbet-colored frocks, matching shoes, and frothy picture hats that set off their pale skin, huge eyes, and chiseled features.
Building on the international success of Umbrellas, Demy threw caution to the wind in this tribute to the American musicals that the French New Wave adored. There are sailors straight out of On the Town (okay, they’re French sailors, but it’s the way they strut in their tight white pants that matters). Deneuve and Dorléac don red sequined dresses and make like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Demy even got Gene Kelly to play one of the six leading roles.
The slim plot revolves around the twin daughters (Deneuve and Dorléac) of a single mother (Danielle Darrieux) who refused to marry the love of her life because he had the silly surname of “Dame.” Unbeknownst to her, Monsieur Dame (Michel Piccoli) is back in town running the music store where her daughters buy their supplies (they give ballet and piano lessons while dreaming of making it big in Paris). In a medium-size town like Rochefort, it’s possible that at least some of the people who are meant for one another will cross paths.
The Young Girls is more optimistic, though not necessarily more convincing, than the bittersweet Umbrellas and the earlier Lola. (Demy considered the three films a romantic trilogy.) Michel Legrand’s score is a dull rehash of the one he wrote for Umbrellas (the advantage is that you won’t wake up for weeks singing “I will wait for you”), and the script is thin and meandering. The American dancer-actors (in addition to Kelly, there’s George Chakiris, of West Side Story fame, and Grover Dale) are game but a bit out of their element. The women, however, are wonderful. Darrieux is rueful and worldly-wise (more than anything else in the film, her character is the inspiration for Chantal Akerman’s more radical musical The Golden Eighties, a/k/a Window Shopping). Deneuve and Dorléac are stylish, smart, and spirited, and their awkwardness as dancers makes them even more winning.
Awash in lemon and peach, lavender and baby blue, Young Girls of Rochefort floats from one color-coordinated moment to the next. It earns a place in history by virtue of its production design, which, in this newly restored, wide-screen color version, looks more sweetly camp than ever.