In the majority of today's movies, falling in love resembles a game of Mad Libs, where every filmmaker has been given the same basic scenario and then told to fill in the blanks. '____ meets ____. They fight because ____. They reconcile because ____. They fall in love. The End.' The routine has become so obligatory, some films don't even bother explaining why the characters are in love; they just have to be. Differences in age, personality and maturity are completely disregarded so that the supposed soulmates can kiss before the credits roll. The refreshing thing about Next Stop, Wonderland, a new comedy from Brad Anderson, is that it actually proves why its will-be lovers belong together, so that you hope for, rather than dread, their inevitable union.

Hope Davis (The Daytrippers) stars as Erin, a young woman who has recently been dumped by her longtime boyfriend (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Far from brooding over the split, she relishes being on her own, something neither her friends, nor her concerned mother (Holland Taylor), can understand. Mom grows so frustrated with Erin's apparent lack of interest in meeting Mr. Right that she places a personal ad for her daughter. Erin's anger quickly gives way to curiosity after she finds her voice-mail flooded with messages from potential suitors. With a deep breath, she embarks on a series of disastrous dates that leave her fed up with the entire male sex.

Unbeknownst to Erin, Mr. Right exists across town in the form of Alan, a former plumber who has gone back to school with dreams of becoming a marine biologist. In order to pay the tuition fees, however, he had to borrow money from the local loan shark. Now deep in debt, Alan is forced to repay the loan by carrying out an assignment meant to deliver a 'warning' to the aquarium where he volunteers, which has run afoul of a shady construction company.

If you haven't guessed it yet, this is one of those romantic comedies where the two characters constantly cross paths, but just miss meeting each other every time. It's not a particularly novel idea, but the strength of Next Stop, Wonderland doesn't lie in the story. What makes the movie work is the character of Erin, easily one of the most interesting and involving creations, male or female, of the past year. In this genre, women generally fall into two categories: ice-queens that needs to be melted, or slightly ditzy dreamers who keep getting involved with the wrong guys. In both cases, the character's lack of a husband/boyfriend somehow makes her less than a whole person. As written by Anderson and played by Davis, Erin emerges as something different: a woman who doesn't need a man to complete her life. It would have been easy to play the character as another repressed prig, particularly considering some of the rebuffs she gives her would-be suitors. Davis' wonderful performance, though, hints at something deeper. Erin knows that she could get any man she wants, but she chooses to remain single. While her friends and mother constantly pursue love, or at least sex, at every opportunity, she has grown comfortable with her solitude and gets more satisfaction and pleasure from being by herself. In fact, Erin is only unhappy when she is trapped in a large social setting where dozens of men line up to hit on her, the very environment in which her peers expect her to thrive. I can't think of another romantic comedy where the female protagonist has ever been this much of a loner.

Ironically, the movie's weak link is Alan, Erin's supposed Mr. Right. Gelfant gives a good performance, but the character is, quite frankly, a little dull. Unlike Erin, who is an entirely different person underneath the surface, Alan is what he looks like: a nice guy who could use a break. Perhaps realizing the character's limited potential, Anderson involves him in a much more elaborate plot, which ultimately belongs in a different movie. By the end, its obvious that even the director wants to rush through Alan's scenes so that he can get back to the real star of the film.

Although Anderson plays a few tricks on the audience along the way, the ending is never really in doubt. Next Stop, Wonderland isn't out to surprise, though; it simply wants the viewer to understand why Erin and Alan are right for each other. As a result, when they finally do meet, you can't help but give a silent cheer.

--Ethan Alter