Magnolia Pictures // 2009 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 15th, 2010
If the glass is half empty, at least you can't drown.
"Maybe you should look at the world as your friend."
Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) was once one of America's most popular kiddie song artists. Alas, these days he's stuck working in a dead-end job at a publishing company, finding little satisfaction in his work or his life in general. He's divorced and gets to spend some time with his daughter Sandra (Jodelle Ferland, Tideland) every other weekend. Lately, Sandra has felt alienated from her father, as his bleak and cynical worldview has a way of getting her down.
When Ben's roommate Ibu (Michael K. Williams, The Wire) goes into a diabetic coma, Ben's pessimistic view of the world is only reinforced. However, the incident allows Ben to meet Khadi (Sanaa Lathan, Something New), Ibu's kind-hearted sister. Khadi attempts to break through Ben's embittered exterior and touch his heart, hoping to help him see the world in new ways. Is there any possibility that Ben might really learn to live again?
My guess is that most of you have a pretty good idea of precisely where Wonderful World is going after reading that plot description. Granted, it's a fairly predictable movie with some equally predictable messages tossed in at the end, but sometimes it's the journey rather than the destination that really counts. That's the case with this film, as it offers a thoughtful and nuanced portrait of a well-developed central character as it works its way to the somewhat typical conclusion.
One of the reasons I like the film as much as I do is because it doesn't go overboard in forcing the inevitable transformation that Ben must go through. I've always had a hard time accepting a lot of those films in which some cranky cynic that nobody likes is transformed into an ultra-popular bundle of happiness and joy (this tends to happen an awful lot in Christmas movies). To begin with, Ben's cynicism is not just forced negative thinking but rather a genuinely thoughtful and intelligent view of the world. He sees things for what they are; things are often not very good. He doesn't care for artifice and phony positive thinking; he doesn't like playing games or cheerfully faking his way through social situations.
Truthfully, there's nothing actually incorrect about the way Ben sees the world. I was able to relate to a great deal of his outlook on life, which may just say something about me but which I suspect is a reflection of how well the writers have done in terms of creating a genuine character rather than a grumpy stereotype. The problem with Ben's worldview is what it's doing to the people around him. He's become a very difficult person to be around, which is one kind of problem for his co-workers and another kind of problem for his family. Ibu is the only one who seems to be able to handle Ben's pessimism, mostly because he is confident in his own optimism and takes everything Ben says in stride.
In a handful of brief but memorable scenes, Ben engages in hallucinatory conversation with "The Man" (who looks an awful lot like Philip Baker Hall, Magnolia). Who is "The Man," exactly? "Are you God?" Ben quizzes. "No, God handles all of the birds and beasties," The Man replies. "I just deal with the human element." Ben's questions are simultaneously simple and deep: "Why are there soda machines in elementary schools?" The Man explains calmly but firmly that it's easier to keep humanity in line by appealing to their bad instincts than by appealing to their good ones. "After all, everybody has bad instincts," he notes. "Not everybody has good ones."
Broderick's performance is the actor's best since Election, a moving and understated turn that remains effective and truthful throughout. Broderick is finally starting to lose those boyish "Bueller" looks; his hair is graying and his face is looking just a little bit weathered. In lesser roles, Broderick has a tendency to either overplay his part or seem disinterested. This time, he finds the perfect low-key note from the start and never misses another beat until the credits roll. The other actors are all fine (Lathan has a couple of good scenes and it was a pleasant surprise to see the mature-beyond-her-years Jodelle Ferland again), but this is Broderick's film to carry and he does so quite well.
The film receives a perfectly solid Blu-ray review, though admittedly it isn't the sort of film that really demands to be seen in HD. This is a character-driven drama with a somewhat overcast and slightly dour color palette (suiting Ben's similarly-flavored mood), but the image is presented with clarity and depth nonetheless. Detail is solid, particularly in terms of facial detail. Blacks are satisfyingly deep and flesh tones are accurate. The audio is also rather low-key and not particularly noteworthy in any way, but the mix is as professional and satisfactory as one can expect it to be. Supplements are limited to a handful of featurettes: "As Soon as Fish Fall Out of the Sky: The Character and Story of Wonderful World," "Behind the Scenes: Working with Writer/Director Josh Goldin and Actor Matthew Broderick," "Behind the Scenes Montage" and "HDNet: A Look at Wonderful World."
Aside from the generic structure of the plot, it should also be noted the film slowly starts to run out of steam during its final half-hour. While I'm pleased that Wonderful World remains truthful and avoids artifice until the very end, the "inspirational" passage of the film is nonetheless simply less interesting than the rest of the movie. Also, I think the argument can be made that the (well-acted and thought-provoking) scenes with Broderick and "The Man" don't exactly fit comfortably into the fabric of the movie.
Wonderful World is a touching little movie featuring a very fine performance from Mr. Broderick. If you enjoy films that treat their characters with understanding and respect, you may consider giving this one a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R