Wonderful World taps the fretful zeitgeist, but trips along with freshness and humor and pleasant darkness, like Broken Flowers or Happy-Go-Lucky.
Lately the movies have been doing a pretty solid job of keeping up with the times, tapping the fretful zeitgeist (intentionally or not) and communing in sympathy with our downtrodden little souls. George Clooney mused on redundancies and depressive listlessness in the rather sexy Up in the Air, and even Wes Anderson’s fantastic Mr. Fox (Clooney again) found himself arguing heatedly with a badger over the price of a dendriform condo.
And now we’ve been given the pleasantly off-kilter Wonderful World, in which Matthew Broderick takes an indie star turn, leading us on a gratifying (if occasionally cloying) meditation on what it means to engage with, get beaten up by, and denounce The Man. A worthy meditation in these times, to be sure. (And so long as I’m frisking movies for resonance with the dour spirit of the age, let me say: Get stuffed, It’s Complicated. No bakery proprietor can afford to live that way, even if she really is a dab hand at whipping up that pinnacle of advanced culinary technique, the croque-monsieur).
At the heart of Wonderful World (written and directed by screenwriter Joshua Goldin) is one Ben Singer (Broderick), a middle-aged man with a crappy parking space, crappy apartment, crappy job, scruffy beard. He used to be, we learn, a successful children’s singer, Raffi-esque and in-demand on the children’s concert circuit. (Apparently there is such a thing.) But after Ben’s label snubbed an acoustic album he recorded for adults, Ben abandoned his music career and retreated into a sort of ascetic exile, extracting himself as best he could from the unsatisfactory system of upward-pushing-ness.
But the funny thing, of course, about The System, is that you can’t quite ever beat it, or escape it, and that’s where we find Ben at the start of the film — snappish and withdrawn, but still irremediably tied to all things irksome. In solitary moments, he converses with an embodiment of The Man, a white-haired, besuited personage who hands down wryly amusing sound bytes. Ben, in response to The Man and the world at large, is understandably defensive and eye-roll-y. “At least,” Ben snarks, “I don’t delude myself with hopes and dreams.” And: “Negativity is treason. They even have a pill for it.”
Ben works as a proofreader and lives in a one-room apartment with curtains for walls, which he shares with his Senegalese roommate, Ibu (Michael K. Williams), a philosophical diabetic who engages Ben in conversations on game theory while soundly trouncing him at game after game of chess. Ben copes, or rather floats, with the aid of pot and occasional visits to a guitar shop where he jams in a back room with fellow musicians, one of whom is Dan Zanes appearing in a quick cameo (Zanes, a childrens’ musician himself, composed the film’s understated, whimsical score, which inspires little moments of pleasure all on its own).
And then there’s Ben’s pre-teen daughter, Sandra (Jodelle Ferland, an impressive young master of well-calibrated moments). Un-amicably divorced, Ben takes Sandra out on weekend jaunts, during which he attempts, rather hopelessly, to serve as a source of entertainment and fatherly comfort, while invariably getting his daughter down with his ever-babbling brook of cynical life-commentary. The relationship, and Ben himself, cry out for some serious repair.
Ben’s revelatory journey — of course there’s a revelatory journey — begins when his roommate, Ibu, is hospitalized after sinking into a diabetic coma. After missing work to rush Ibu to the E.R., Ben loses his proofreading job and becomes a pizza delivery boy. Ibu’s sister, Khadi (Sanaa Lathan), flies in from Senegal and crashes first in Ben’s apartment, and later in his heart. Khadi enchants Sandra with a dance lesson and ensnares Ben with her home-cooked meals and curious spiritual rituals. It might seem a bit too pat, this infatuation and the transformation it incites. Here comes a beautiful woman from a foreign, mystical-seeming land, where fish are said to fall from the sky during rainstorms. Khadi, in all her newness, inspires wonder and a fresh enchantment with the disenchanting world. But is that wonder real or meaningful, if its roots are planted in what one might (cynically) call misunderstanding? Surely the postcolonialists have some judgment to levy here, and perhaps they’re right.
But apart from the potential discomfort one might feel at Khadi’s role in all this, Wonderful World trips along with freshness and humor and pleasant darkness, recalling the mood of, say, Broken Flowers (2005) or the fantastic UK import, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), though both of those were admittedly endowed with more substantial plotlines. Nonetheless, Wonderful World frequently nails despair, loneliness, hopelessness, and useless rage with such wry accuracy that you can’t help but chuckle in recognition. At one point, Ben turns up outside his ex-wife’s house and comments bitterly on the flickering gas lanterns mounted on either side of her front door. Those tacky, faux-upscale fixtures had been annoying yours truly for the whole film, so I was glad to see Ben scorn the things. Perhaps Wonderful World resonates with a limited, snarky audience: me and Ben. But I suspect the wonder reaches further. After all, if Ben teaches us anything, it’s that we’re all far less alone than we think.
Wonderful World is available on DVD.