Mopey white guy with guitar, pt. 2: Wonderful World ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2010)

Wait a minute…didn’t I review this film last week?

Well, sort of…

Can blue men sing the whites?

Or are they hypocrites for singing woo, woo, whoo?

Oh Lord, somebody help me!

-The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

There was a famous children’s radio show that ran on WOR in New York from the late 1920s through the late 1940s that became infamous when it was rumored that the host, Uncle Don Carney, had once signed off with his signature cheery goodbye to the kiddies, then (not realizing that his microphone was still “hot”) immediately wisecracked, “There! That oughta hold the little bastards!”

I remember listening to it back in the 70s on an LP of legendary broadcasting bloopers compiled by Kermit Schaefer. I was disappointed to learn in later years that the gaffe was actually faked for the album (although most of the other cuts were genuine). Still, the enduring popularity of the urban legend says something about the  appeal of the subversive cynic hiding behind the clown face.

This concept has spawned a  sub-genre of films that can  be traced back to the 1957 Elia Kazan entry, A Face in the Crowd, in which Andy Griffith stars as a backwoods conman-turned media superstar whose vitriolic disdain for his public belies his image as a benignly goofy, “family-friendly” entertainer. Tony Richardson’s 1960 film adaptation of John Osborne’s cynical and scathing portrait of a fading vaudevillian (Laurence Olivier), The Entertainer also deserves a mention. More recent films like Bad Santa, Shakes the Clown and Death to Smoochy have toyed with the same theme. Wonderful World, the directorial debut from Joshua Goldin, fits right in.

“The only crime left in the fucking world is negative thinking,” laments Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick) who holds the view that everything is fixed, yuppies are the root of all evil, and we’re all doomed anyway…so why bother. A failed children’s singer (his sole album long relegated to the dusty cutout bins of history), the divorced Ben now works a dead-end job as a proofreader. When one of his co-workers chastises him for not sharing in the congratulatory excitement surrounding the news that another co-worker (an aspiring actor) has just landed his first television acting gig, he dismisses the scold with a shrug and says “I don’t delude myself with hopes and dreams.” He’s a real piece of work.

Interestingly, however, he does have friends. He participates in a weekly after-hours jam session in the back room of a music store with some pals, and proves to be a decent guitarist; it makes us wonder why he’s squandering his talents. As the music store owner  observes, “That’s a shame, to be good at something no one cares about…” (as a blogger, don’t I know that feeling). His roommate Ibu (Michael K. Williams) a Senegalese immigrant, doesn’t let Ben’s chronic glumness dampen his own perpetually sunny disposition, and considers him a friend, despite all of his negative waves.

Ben does approach a state approximating enjoyment when he spends time with his precocious 11-year old daughter (Jodelle Ferland); although his rampant cynicism is markedly straining their relationship and becoming a source of concern to Ben’s ex-wife (Ally Walker). Ben seems quite happy to continue wallowing in his half-empty glass bubble of apathetic detachment, until a series of unexpected and personally challenging events shakes up his world, not the least of which in the person of Ibu’s sister (Sanaa Lathan) a Senegalese national who shows up on his doorstep one fateful day.

While this is familiar narrative (the self-pitying mope gets snapped out of his myopic torpor by the Free-Spirited Other), writer-director Goldin gives it a fresh spin. I expected things to go in another direction (another black comedy about a bitter children’s entertainer); but was pleasantly surprised by the warmth and humanity at its heart. Broderick gives a nuanced performance that I would put up there with his work in Election. Lathan does a lovely job, as does Williams (you may recognize him from HBO’s The Wire). Wonderful World may not be a major film, but it is a rewarding one.

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