Friday, March 19, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "Wonderful World"

Grade: C-plus

Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick), the misanthropic protagonist of Josh Goldin's film Wonderful World, voices many of the frustrations nagging at those who harbor suspicion that the world is going to hell. Ben is a divorced, semi-retired children's musician and pothead who was once near the top of his field. His career went abruptly into decline when his record company encouraged him to make a solo album, then failed to promote it. Now he toils miserably as a proofreader at a law firm.

Broderick adopts just the right attitude for the role, slackening his baby face into a permanent sulk and letting his imploring puppy-dog eyes go dead. If Ben's funk is the grown-up version of a prolonged temper tantrum by a child insisting that the world know how unhappy he is, his barbed observations about greed and injustice still hit home.

After a particularly unpleasant custodial visit with his 11-year-old daughter, Sandra (Jodelle Ferland), she is so fed up that she refuses to see him anymore. There is no love lost between Ben and her mother, Eliza (Ally Waller), who suggests a particularly embittered ex-wife of a Woody Allen character.

But Wonderful World has its joyful side. Ben shares a shabby one-room apartment with Ibou (Michael Kenneth Williams), a Sengalese immigrant with whom he spends much of his free time playing chess. (Ibou usually wins.) When Ibou falls into a diabetic coma, his sister Khadi (Sanaa Lathan) appears out of the blue from Dakar, and Ben invites her to stay in Ibou's half of the apartment. Both the brother and sister are keenly in touch with positive life forces that seem to have deserted him. Ibou has faith in the future and believes in magic. And when Khadi and Ben begin an impulsive affair, her spirit begins to rub off on him.

At first Wonderful World seems to resist embracing the sentimental cliche of impoverished, life-affirming Africans redeeming the sick soul of a depressed, self-pitying Westerner. But once the improbable affair begins, the movie succumbs to temptation. As Khadi cooks delicious Sengalese meals and teaches Sandra to dance, you are reminded of The Visitor, a stronger movie, in which a Syrian musician and a Sengalese street vendor restore the desiccated spirit of a middle-aged college teacher.

As The Visitor showed, there is truth in the cliche, condescending though it may be. And the touches of African guitar music that lilt on the soundtrack lend Wonderful World little dashes of ebullience. When we eventually hear some of Ben's folk-pop songs (written by Dan Zanes, a leader of the independent children's-music movement, and performed on screen by Broderick), they convey a whimsical sweetness reminiscent of early Paul Simon; you want to sing along.

The major miscalculation in Wonderful World is the presence of a dream figure, known as the Man (Philip Baker Hall), who appears to Ben now and then as a kind of imaginary therapist. The character's appearances are so infrequent and his remarks so forgettable that he seems an afterthought. But he throws this delicate, intelligent film, which at its best suggests a muted hybrid of The Visitor and It's a Wonderful Life, off balance.

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