Euphorically Eloquent Wanderland a Musically Quirky Miracle
Alex (Tate Ellington) is in a rut. Working a mundane desk job sitting behind a computer screen responding to various email enquiries with a form of enthusiastic helpfulness that’s as forced as it is fake, things take a peculiar turn when he gets a message from Lisa Leonard (Dree Hemingway) offering up her home in the Hamptons for the weekend to the first person who can make use of it. As it’s currently offseason there won’t be a lot of people around, meaning whoever takes her up on this offer will likely have two days of relative peace and quiet all to themselves.
Mainly because he’s not entirely certain he actually knows Lisa, and even though Alex could use the break, initially he doesn’t respond. But as no one else seems to be taking her up to use the house the busy New Yorker who is always glued to his cell phone takes the plunge and asks for the keys. What follows next is the strangest 24-hours Alex has experienced in quite some time, maybe ever. His car breaks down. He gets stranded at the beach. His cell phone dies. His misplaces his wallet. Things only get more surreal from there, Alex entering into an oddly musical netherworld where up becomes down, black becomes white and the metaphorical grey areas of life are far easier to tolerate and learn vital lessons from than they ever have been before.
I honestly can’t tell you what’s going on with Wanderland. Writer/director Josh Klausner’s latest, his first feature behind the camera since 1999’s thriller The 4th Floor, is a vague, strangely plotless late night/early morning travelogue about a lonely man having his eyes reopened to the larger world around him. It’s like a middle-of-nowhere Into the Night or After Hours but with a softer, humanistic edge and set to idiosyncratically musical beat. Nothing happens yet everything transpires, Alex’s jaunt teaching him that life lived staring at a Smartphone or a computer screen and not interacting with others is one not lived nearly as well as it possibly could be.
This is one of those movies where I sat there for about the initial third of the running time wondering what the heck it was I was watching. Alex isn’t a bad guy; he’s just not a particularly interesting one. But really that ends up being the point. Why he’s so withdrawn, what led him to cut himself off so fully from the world, none of that matters nearly as much as one thinks it would. If anything figuring that stuff out is the goal Klausner has tasked the viewer to accomplish, deciphering little clues, putting those various pieces together, as mysteries go the filmmaker has crafted one for Alex that, I imagine purposefully, can be solved a multitude of ways, all of them likely correct.
It helps that the crux of this long, strange night is Alex trying to find an early evening swimmer, Penelope (Tara Summers), he met on the beach and who seemed to intuitively know he was in need of a friend even if didn’t realize it for himself. With only the lost monogrammed insoles of one of her shoes as a guide, he ends up traveling between a series of parties and get-togethers happening throughout the Hamptons, the locals all getting together in a variety of groups to celebrate life through music, dance and togetherness.
What’s interesting is that, even if romantic and sexual pleasures are hinted at, this isn’t a film concerned with either of those things. Instead, Alex’s journey is one of discovery, of learning the value of making new friends and relearning that human interaction, even if it’s just a quiet conversation between two strangers heading in opposite directions in the dead of night, might end up being the sort of comforting moment a person remembers for the rest of their life. It is a movie about kindness of purpose and thought, of listening with concerned intent to what others are trying to tell you, and even if disagreements arise common ground can still be found as long as people treat one another with respect no matter how massive those differences might be.
There are occasions where things can almost get too weird. One vignette concerning a randy farmer (Victoria Clark) singing a love song of longing and regret in the middle of a corn maze is as bizarre as that description sounds, while the garden gnome overload both in the front yard as well as in the bedroom dresser drawer of Lisa Leonard’s house is one sight gag I almost could have done without. But other little side stories work beautifully, most notably an encounter between Alex and ice cream shop soda jerk Donny Softlicker (Drew Powell). Their story is absolute perfection, and what begins as a forced partnership magically and eloquently transforms into genuine friendship with a poetic grace that brought a silent tear to my eye.
There’s more, but discovering the ins and outs of what Klausner has conjured up for Alex to face without knowing too much beforehand is all part of the fun. This is a light movie, overflowing in ebullient joy at the prospect that musical merriment, quiet communication and thoughtful conversation are the surprises that make life an experiential treasure worth celebrating. Wanderland is a quaint, endearingly eloquent miracle that meandered right into the center of my heart, the bliss I felt watching it a euphoric song I find I want to memorize and sing for myself.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)