Could there be a duller title for a movie than Mr. Wonderful (PG-13)? It sounds like some dowdy synthetic fantasy from the 1940s—a picture to screen in Ronald Reagan’s White House. The good news is that Mr. Wonderful is a lot more up-to-the-minute than its retro-square title suggests. It’s a friendly, moonstruck comedy about missed connections, casual relationships that don’t add up, and people confronted with so many romantic choices that they no longer know their own hearts. Which is to say, it’s about love in the ’90s. The not-so-good news is that the film itself is a series of missed connections.
In one scene, Gus (Matt Dillon), a New York City electrical worker with a Joey Buttafuoco accent, walks onto the balcony of the empty apartment he has just rented with his girlfriend, Rita (Mary-Louise Parker), a gently amorous nurse who sits slumped in the corner. She’s upset because she realizes that Gus doesn’t want to live with her. Despite his best efforts to throw himself into the relationship and, you know, commit, he’s still in love with his ex-wife, Lee (Annabella Sciorra)—though he doesn’t quite know it yet. Rita, however, isn’t angry (virtually no one in this movie gets angry). She’s just sad. And Gus isn’t angry either. He’s just confused. They’re both confused and sad (but not angry).
Directed by Anthony Minghella, who made the delicate British comedy of bereavement Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), Mr. Wonderful is the latest example of what happens when a sensitive-and-supple foreign talent tries to flex itself into a Hollywood pose. Like such star-studded mishaps as Diane Kurys’ A Man in Love (1987), Lasse Halstrom’s Once Around (1991), and Stephen Frears’ Hero (1992)—all made by Europeans—Mr. Wonderful attempts to put a fluky human spin on its own commercial contrivances, only to end up sticky and amorphous, like an organism without a spine.
The plot, if that’s the right word for it, is pegged to a bit of high-concept folderol. Gus, it seems, is so financially strapped by his alimony payments that he can’t generate the cash he needs to go in with his buddies on their dream project: the renovation of an abandoned bowling alley. And so he decides to play matchmaker and find Lee a husband. This low-watt gimmick, which is being used to market the picture, is like something you’d see in a hack comedy starring Jim Belushi. What’s more, it’s obvious that Minghella couldn’t care less about it. He’s looking for feelings, not farce; he introduces the ex-husband-as-yenta business and then promptly throws it away. The trouble is, what he’s left with isn’t quite a movie. It’s a meandering series of dialogues, a daisy chain of bemused discontent.
Lee has been dating her married English professor, Tom (William Hurt), a pompous fellow who praises her papers with patronizing affectlessness. It doesn’t take long for Lee to realize that he isn’t serious about her. Meanwhile, Rita shakes free of Gus and hooks up with Dominic (Vincent D’Onofrio), a pharmacist so warm and fuzzy he’s like a human smiley-face button. This leaves Gus and Lee to rediscover each other. Except that it’s never really clear why they split up in the first place. So Lee could go to college? Everyone in Mr. Wonderful is so earnest and well-intentioned that the romantic dilemmas seem less a function of their personalities than of the fact that the movie needs romantic dilemmas. Minghella may be that rare director who likes his characters too much. He dotes on them, showing us their pain but purging them of any selfishness or cruelty, the darker flavors that lend love its bittersweet bite.
It’s up to the actors to create drama out of the vague situations they’ve been handed. By now, it’s obvious that Dillon, for all his angel-faced charisma, doesn’t really work in these ordinary-guy roles. As Gus, he’s likable enough, but he projects too much cloddishness and brain fog, the very qualities that made him such an original and touching comic presence in Drugstore Cowboy. Sciorra remains a proficient actress, but with a fatal lack of mystery. Beneath her aureole of curls, she’s so refined and yuppified that we never see a hint of the working-class roots that she and Gus supposedly share. If there’s a bright spot in the cast, it’s Mary-Louise Parker, who bends scenes to her own dreamy-sexy rhythms. Playing doctor in the bedroom, she and Dillon get such an affectionate rapport going that I began to forget just why these two weren’t right for each other. And I still don’t remember. C