Music may soothe the savage breast, but it doesn’t do much for the cynical mind in the uneven curmudgeon-redemption pic “Wonderful World.” Toplining Matthew Broderick, Joshua Goldin’s directing debut has soulful qualities that have been compressed into a paint-by-numbers production. Magnolia has set an early 2010 theatrical release for the pic, which preemed at Tribeca last March and has been rolling around the fest circuit without generating much enthusiasm. International prospects look strictly ancillary.
A divorced, dope-smoking, fleetingly popular composer of kiddie tunes, Ben Singer (Broderick) has fallen on hard times. He’s now eking out a living as a proofreader at a legal firm and sharing his one-room apartment with poor but philosophical Senegalese immigrant Ibou (Michael K. Williams). He’s not sleeping well, because Philip Baker Hall keeps appearing in his dreams as a spiritual guide whom Ben calls “the Man.” Ben’s sour demeanor alienates him from idealistic co-workers and, more importantly, his emotionally closed teenage daughter, Sandra (Jodelle Ferland).
Change comes when Ibou slips into a diabetic coma and his charismatic sister, Khadi (Sanaa Lathan), swings in from Senegal. A good guy at heart, Ben offers Ibou’s half of the room to Khadi as a temporary base, but still works hard at keeping himself isolated. As Khadi threatens to break down his psychic wall, “Accidental Tourist”-style, it’s obvious that the African interloper will be the agent of Ben’s spiritual turnaround.
Unfortunately, the film’s upbeat intentions are undermined by missing plot points: How does Khadi afford to fly in from Senegal if she is so poor? More importantly, how does stoner Ben manage to effortlessly ditch his obvious drug habit? Many details appear lost in a zealous but reckless edit designed to pick up the pace of Goldin’s occasionally maudlin script. Results are more messy than bad, and to its credit, the yarn isn’t Pollyanna all the way through. But though it introduces some tough realities, the pic’s optimism rarely feels genuine.
Goldin’s helming from scene to scene is functional, but he has a hard time assembling the film’s disparate parts. Broderick, meanwhile, clearing the fog from Ben’s shower mirror, reminds us that he’s been nailing this kind of character since his John Hughes days. (Notably, Broderick toplined Frances Veber’s 1992 “Out on a Limb,” which was scripted by Goldin and his twin brother, Daniel.)Williams’ Ibou is a warm foil for Ben’s cynicism, and New York-born Lathan works wonders with her turn as the Senegalese woman who brings Ben back from the brink (even as one wonders why she would want to).
Production values are pro on a budget. The most obvious sign of cost-cutting is an underdeveloped Shreveport, La., airstrip doubling for a Dakar airport.