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At the Movies

A comedy that works, a satire that wobbles, a mystery that probes


One of the central problems of recent attempts at romantic comedy has been that contemporary fashion dictates that its central couple proceed to sexual athleticism only a few shots after they meet. Next Stop, Wonderland (Miramax) has cleverly avoided the trap by not allowing Erin Castleton (Hope Davis) and Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant) to meet until almost the end.

Amazingly, the tactic works, perhaps because the movie, directed by Brad Anderson from a bright screenplay he wrote with Lyn Vaus, is unpretentiously lighthearted, and because Hope Davis is credible as an intelligent but vulnerable young woman whose fatuously leftist boyfriend (Phil Hoffman) is just moving out on her as the movie opens.

The absence of plot isn’t much of a drawback since “Next Stop, Wonderland” offers an amusingly close observation of today’s yuppie mating dance. You don’t have to believe that you and your perfect partner are ultimately destined to meet in order to enjoy the way in which Erin and Alan just miss each other all over Boston -- on a train, at a party, even on the telephone. There’s a fine soundtrack of bossa nova music directed by Claudio Ragazzi, and it’s hard not to laugh at the succession of male deadheads who answer the misleading personal ad (“frisky”) that Erin’s domineering mother has placed in a local paper.

Erin, a Harvard Medical School dropout working as a nurse, is still mourning a father who was both heart specialist and poet. Something of what he taught her on a vacation in Ireland -- to value “silence without loneliness” -- becomes real in Hope Davis’ characterization. Alan, an upright ex-plumber earnestly studying marine biology and working in the Boston aquarium, is a less credible character, perhaps because he figures in a complex, unresolved plot with loan sharks using his father’s gambling debts to pressure him.

A few years ago I’d have said a young woman like Erin wouldn’t go out with anyone who answered her ad, but times have changed. She’s annoyed at her mother for placing the ad but is inevitably curious. In any case, she does a wonderful job fielding a series of hilariously inept attempts to impress her. The competition is so weak that when a handsome Brazilian ethnomusicologist (Jose Zuniga) to whom Erin had given an injection asks her to fly to Sao Paulo with him, it seems like an attractive offer.

But the camera has systematically involved us in Alan’s situation, establishing him as an attractive alternative to all the jerks -- including his lawyer brother -- who have tried their line on Erin. He sticks to the books when the boys want him to go partying, he resists Julie (Carla Buono), a fellow student who makes a play for him in the hope his tutoring will get her through a microbiology course, and we’ve watched him noticing Erin on several occasions when it seemed they would finally meet.

The whole thing wouldn’t work if Hope Davis didn’t convince us that she is as intelligent as she is wistful, that she can enjoy being quiet because she has a sense of humor.

Fortunately, “Next Stop, Wonderland,” doesn’t claim its fated couple will live happily ever after; it does something more interesting: Make us glad they’ve met.

A Merry War (First Look Pictures) is a handsomely mounted English romantic satire about a self-styled poet. The movie is based on an early George Orwell novel, and director Robert Bierman captures the styles and attitudes of Britain in the ’30s with amused detachment. Even more important, he has guided Richard E. Grant, who plays the deluded Gordon Comstock, through a performance so airily amusing we almost forget how insufferable the poet really is.

Comstock is a glibly successful advertising copywriter who makes a grand gesture of quitting his job when his first book of poetry receives a good notice in the London Times. He’s not even sobered up when he learns that the review was written by his amazingly patient editor friend, Ravelston (Julian Wadham). Comstock wanders through the city reciting fatuous verses about nature and issuing denunciations of materialism, before dropping into the tearoom where his sister works and righteously demanding another handout.

Contemporary young women will find it hard to identify with Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter), Gordon’s long-suffering fiancée, who waits for him to settle down as patiently as she continues her work as graphic artist. Much of the movie’s humor derives from the obvious sham of Gordon’s outbursts against the middle class, symbolized by the aspidistra houseplant. As his censorious landlady tells him, “An aspidistra in the window is a guarantee of respectability.”

The story never develops any genuine suspense, especially since Gordon’s former boss is always prepared to welcome him back to the ad agency. Photographer Giles Nuttgens offers handsome shots of an earlier London, and director Biermand uses the movie’s advertising theme to fine comic advantage. Comstock’s comic struggle against his own unshakable bourgeois background explores new possibilities when he is forced to move to a seedy neighborhood and grows ecstatic at its disrespectable ethos.

Some will anticipate the final plot twist which, appropriately enough, depends on Gordon finally accepting his middle-class fate. As Orwell’s title put it, “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.”

Those looking for something exotically different would do well to seek out The Eel (New Yorker Films), a Japanese film directed by the internationally respected Shohei Imamura. Before the credits roll, we see a sensational crime of passion. An already suspicious husband returns early from a fishing trip, walks to his house in darkness, seizes a knife, briefly watches his wife with her lover, then stabs her repeatedly. Afterward, he covers her body, takes his bicycle and rushes to the police station to surrender.

Imamura has no interest in exploiting sensationalism. There is psychological depth, genuine compassion and hope of redemption in this complex narrative. We next see the husband, Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho, who was so good as the comic lead of “Shall We Dance?” a year ago) leaving prison eight years later, paroled into the custody of a Buddhist priest. Grim and submissive, he is completely uncommunicative -- except with a pet eel he was allowed to keep in prison.

“He listens to what I say,” Yamashita explains, and myths of endurance and rebirth are suggested by his fishing companion’s account of the yearly migratory pattern of Japanese eels.

There is a harsh beauty to the deserted coastline where the ex-prisoner opens a barber shop, and we become deeply involved in whether his emotional repression is primarily a matter of shame, guilt or distrust of humanity, especially women. When he stumbles across Keiko (Misa Shimizu), unconscious after attempting suicide, he first wants to avoid involvement, but by returning with friends, he is instrumental in saving her.

Since Keiko is getting over an unhappy love affair and does not want to return to Tokyo, the Buddhist priest and his wife urge Yamashita to let her help in the barber shop. Though Yamashita resents this intrusion -- “I’ve had my fill of women,” he tells her -- the shop’s business improves, and Keiko suspects a kindness underneath Yamashita’s taciturnity when he rushes her to a doctor on his bike after she cuts her finger.

We expect a conventionally romantic solution, but Imamura’s intentions are more elusive. The plot includes gangster melodrama growing out of Keiko’s past attachment to an unscrupulous business associate, gentle comedy involving a young man who borrows the barber pole in the hope of attracting a UFO, and Yamashita and Keiko’s recurring nightmares in which it is often difficult to separate reality from dream.

The emotional extremism of “The Eel” is ultimately justified by the need of both Yamashita and Keiko to deal with their pasts. The ending is surprisingly touching.

Joseph Cunneen is coeditor of Cross Currents.

National Catholic Reporter, September 18, 1998