Lookin For Love

Next Stop Wonderland
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Slums of Beverly Hills
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

Going on the market: Hope Davis in Brad Anderson's Next Stop Wonderland
Going on the market: Hope Davis in Brad Anderson's Next Stop Wonderland

Why Do Fools Fall in Love
area theaters, starts Friday

Why do fools fall in love? (In the movies, I mean.) Are films about romantic fate merely old-fashioned, or might there be a hidden agenda at work? Too often in love stories, "fate" becomes the polite word for directorial manipulation: If Sliding Doors wants to showcase two hairstyles for Gwyneth Paltrow by contriving a second, hypothetical course for her character, that's not bad filmmaking, it's fate. Such love-story twists are usually gendered, too. When was the last time you saw a male character in a movie whose romantic destiny was dictated by fate? Maybe it's simply that directors enjoy the crowd-pleasing possibilities of putting beautiful, single women in the hands of a higher power--particularly if the filmmaker is an indie auteur at Sundance who's looking to get hitched himself.

Put it this way: The formerly independent Next Stop Wonderland didn't sell to Miramax for $7 million because it celebrates a woman's right to choose. While Erin Castleton (Hope Davis) says confidently at the beginning of the movie that "I don't believe in fate," you can bet that she will by the end.

A 32-year-old registered nurse and med-school dropout, Erin is reeling from the loss of two men: her former live-in beau (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a lefty activist who dumped her; and her dad, who died. Her insufferable mother (Holland Taylor) offends her by suggesting that she needs a new man in her life. But Mom certainly isn't wrong by the movie's logic. From the start of the picture, director Brad Anderson repeatedly puts his heroine in the frame with a male stranger--an aspiring marine biologist (Alan Gelfant) who, forgive the pun, hardly seems like much of a catch--in order to suggest that they belong together whether they know it or not. Erin can talk all she wants about the virtues of independence, but amid a film-long series of near-meetings with career-oriented Mr. Right, her wish for "solitude" doesn't stand a chance against Fate.

To say that Davis gives a sympathetic performance would be an understatement. If the viewer is attracted to her character at all, he might feel overcome by the desire to love and protect her--which, of course, is the idea behind the whole movie. Anderson makes Erin look weathered, mussed, and somewhat out of control, accentuated by his Husbands and Wives-style jump cuts and jerky, handheld shots. (Notably, the camera settles down once the heroine does.) For someone so determined to stay single, Erin's behavior is inexplicable. Aside from Anderson's urge to reprise the men-are-dogs montage from She's Gotta Have It, why does Erin go to meet a dozen desperate men who've responded to the personals ad that Mom took out on her behalf? The film's key moment comes when Erin is in a bar chatting up one of these losers and she says, "Men need women; women don't need men." His response: "And yet you're here, aren't you?" Indeed she is--and Anderson (who also edited the film) makes sure this guy gets the last word.

For the record, I happen to adore cheesy love stories, especially ones in which the heroine makes a conscious decision about whom to choose, for reasons that make sense to her. But Next Stop Wonderland endorses destiny mainly to avoid showing what Erin's life might be like if she followed through on her belief that "the only person that can make you happy is yourself." Apparently, that movie wouldn't sell, and so Erin, like Anderson, puts herself on the market. For the filmmaker, it's Next Stop Hollywood, but for Erin, the end of the line is a place that her formerly independent self would have loathed.

By contrast, I suspect Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne) might approve of the crude but beguiling portrait of her own fucked-up life, Slums of Beverly Hills. The 15-year-old middle child of a poor-but-proud single father (Alan Arkin) circa 1976, Vivian is, as Dad and his two puerile sons would put it, "stacked." Whatever else she might be, Vivian has to keep it largely under wraps while her brothers ogle her breasts and her father shuffles the clan between motel-style dumps on the edge of the 90210 ZIP code, thus allowing them to remain in the Beverly Hills school district. Dad believes he's doing the best for his brood, treating them to steak breakfasts at Sizzler and agreeing to take in his drug-addled and pregnant niece, Rita (Marisa Tomei), from whom Vivian learns the facts of life in a way that recalls Amy Heckerling's sublimely girl-centered Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Straining to preserve her dignity amid various pubescent horrors and the family's freakish behavior, Vivian tests out her budding sexuality with a good-natured, pot-dealing high-school dropout (Kevin Corrigan)--that is, she lets him cop a feel.

Although the dysfunctional-family farce has become the indie subgenre du jour, writer-director Tamara Jenkins keeps this semiautobiographical tale plenty real: There are no winning lottery tickets in store for the Abramowitzes, nor do the requisitely cute '70s-isms eclipse the well-drawn characters. And although it's a screwball comedy, Slums is more engrossing than uproarious--not counting the scene in which Rita and Vivian boogie-oogie-oogie to a Parliament tune with the former's "boyfriend," an enormous vibrator. Other jokes involve morning sickness, menstrual belts, female mustache hair, farting, diuretics, urine samples, and "morning boners"--as if the director made it a goal to pack all these atrocities into a single script. But Jenkins hardly out-crasses the Farrelly Brothers, in part because her aesthetic is as much about seizing control as suffering humiliation. When the filmmaker shoots a thrillingly unusual masturbation scene with one long close-up of Vivian's face, she gives her heroine all the credit for coming of age.

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