Warner Bros. faces a tricky marketing proposition with this charming, almost sedate little romantic comedy, which is short on laughs but tinged with a pleasant European flavor courtesy of British director Anthony Minghella (“Truly, Madly, Deeply”). Those arthouse elements don’t bode well for box office, but pic has the makings of a homevideo hit for those seeking a thinking man’s entry in the “Sleepless in Seattle” vein.
Working from a script by Amy Schor and Vicki Polon, Minghella offers an appealing array of characters lacking a villain or heavy — just a lot of well-meaning folks stumbling their way through life, trying to find a soulmate.
The hook, which almost makes “Mr. Wonderful” sound like the screwball comedy it’s not, centers on the efforts of blue-collar worker Gus (Matt Dillon) to marry off his ex-wife, Leonora (Annabella Sciorra), as a means of escaping his alimony payments, only to rekindle his feelings for her.
Unfortunately, Gus is already involved with Rita (Mary-Louise Parker), while Leonora — in the midst of an affair with her married college professor (William Hurt) — reluctantly agrees to go on a few blind dates, eventually meeting a truly nice guy, Rita’s friend Dominic (Vincent D’Onofrio).
Story begins slowly as an increasingly frustrated Gus grapples with Rita’s insecurity about their relationship, his fear of commitment and his divorceinduced financial woes, preventing him from joining his buddies in fulfilling their dream of buying and renovating a local bowling alley.
When things pick up, it becomes clear that “Mr. Wonderful” has more to do with texture and character than its central premise.
Minghella gives in to some Hollywood conventions, but by avoiding easy stereotypes, the director adroitly manages to keep the audience off guard until the end.
That isn’t to say the pic is without flaws, including a herky-jerky feel and some mundane dialogue in a script that also includes its share of insightful gems.
What sets the pic apart is the richness of its characters and the top-to-bottom strength of its cast, with Dillon confused yet likable as the torn protagonist, both Sciorra and Parker radiantly appealing, and Hurt, D’Onofrio and the various pals all crafting clear portraits.
More than anything, “Mr. Wonderful” explores the romantic ties that bind and the domino effect relationships have on one other.
Tech credits, particularly Michael Gore’s breezy score, add to the bittersweet ambience, with Geoffrey Simpson’s camera work and Doug Kraner’s production design helping convey both the grit and romance of New York — a duality that “Mr. Wonderful” also captures.