'Wanderland': Film Review | Hamptons 2017

Wanderland Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Marmalade LLC
Traipses to the beat of its own drum.

A New York office drone reconnects with life's simpler pleasures through a series of strange encounters, most of them musical.

There are no action-stopping song-and-dance numbers in Wanderland, but more than a few of the gently offbeat comedy's characters pick up guitars and sing. Following a city dweller's perambulatory and often bizarre adventures through the East End of Long Island, writer-director Josh Klausner set out to make "a film with a live soundtrack" rather than a conventional musical, and the results have an unforced, DIY charm.

The low-key indie is a decided departure for Klausner, whose screenwriting credits include Date Night and Shrek Forever After, and who started his Hollywood career as an assistant to the Farrelly brothers. Working with an ensemble of performers both familiar and not, he turns a night of mishaps and frustrations, à la Scorsese's After Hours but without the stomach-churning levels of anxiety, into an openhearted ramble.

Tate Ellington is the thoroughly likable Alex in this wonderland. During a typical day, the one bright spot in his glum 9-to-5 NYC existence arrives when he watches a favorite musical on his laptop. Though unseen to the Wanderland audience, the fictional Catherine Deneuve starrer, The Last Streetcar in Marseilles, is clearly a tip of the hat to her work with Jacques Demy. It's also Klausner's first overt nod to the chemistry between songs and cinema, a combo that he explores with a fresh slant.

Klausner gets the monotony of work emails precisely right, making the arrival of an invitation in Alex's inbox all the more enthralling. The sender, a woman Alex doesn't know but whose address book he's somehow fallen into, is offering a weekend house-sitting opportunity at an "enchanted" Hamptons cottage. The opportunity grows understandably more enticing as the drab day proceeds. The voice urging Alex to "just do it" turns out to be a woman on the street exhorting her dog to do his business — a winningly wry touch to kick off the off-kilter escapades.

After retrieving the key from under a meditating lawn gnome and meeting Jackie Gleason, the resident Persian cat, Alex heads to the beach — not to bask in the ocean air but in search of a cellphone signal. He takes no notice of the teen boy strumming guitar and singing in the dunes. And when he's chatted up by an extroverted swimmer (Tara Summers), he reflexively declines her invitation to a party. By the time Alex changes his mind about the invite, the woman is gone, both his phone and his car have died, and he can't remember the address of his weekend getaway.

Beginning as a search for a phone charger and then for his towed car, Alex's odyssey through the off-season area expands into a quest to find a couple of mysterious figures — a podiatrist named Positano (Douglas Hodge) and the so-called Master of the Winds (Adepero Oduye). The journey takes him to three parties, each with a distinctive vibe. At one, a professional musician (Jack Dishel) performs in wizardly getup. In contrast, the film's other musical performances are impromptu within the context of the story. But all of them tap into the gradually blossoming yearning for real human contact that drives Alex's story. Written by the director with Wendy Parr and Atarah Valentine, the original songs range from acoustic musings about disconnection to an upbeat cocktail-lounge number.

The locals who cross Alex's zigzagging path include a character aptly identified in the credits as Tall Dark Strange Guy (Migs Govea), who joins Alex intermittently on the nighttime roads. He doesn't spout koans or offer anything in the way of wisdom; this isn't one of those movies where everyone serves to enlighten the protagonist — in fact, the stranger (Dree Hemingway) whose email invitation sets Alex on his convoluted path turns out to be the most prosaic person he encounters. But most of them offer surprises: the oddball mother-and-son proprietors of an ice cream parlor (The Leftovers' Marceline Hugot and Gotham's Drew Powell), a retired couple (Ronald Guttman, Wendy Makkena) who live on a boat and believe in the beauty of maps over GPS.

Austin Pendleton, who worked with Klausner on his only previous directing effort, the HBO thriller The 4th Floor, shows up as a painter. Tony winner Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza) strikes deeply weird — and anti-Semitic — chords as a singing farmer, her zither-accompanied predatory moves sending Alex fleeing. At the trippiest of the evening's parties, a ponytailed older man (Harris Yulin) quotes Gertrude Stein and Shakespeare and puts a personal spin on the matter of ubiquitous digital devices.

There's nothing astounding about the way Alex's resistance gives way to curiosity, and Klausner's screenplay hits his dawning awareness a bit too squarely on the head in one of the final scenes. But if the dialogue momentarily deflates the gentle buoyancy of the proceedings, Valentine's lovely, action-capping rendition of the Modern English hit "I Melt With You" restores the movie's balance in fitting musical fashion.

Through it all, Ellington's performance remains effortlessly subtle and lived-in, bringing unexpected depth to the quiet play of emotion on the character's face and giving this loopy episodic tale its heart.

Production company: Marmalade LLC
Cast: Tate Ellington, Tara Summers, Victoria Clark, Jack Dishel, Harris Yulin, Migs Govea, Drew Powell, Marceline Hugot, Rhonda Keyser, Ronald Guttman, Wendy Makkena, Adelind Horan, Austin Pendleton, Douglas Hodge, Adepero Oduye, Dree Hemingway
Director-screenwriter: Josh Klausner
Producers: Barbara Romer, Erika Hampson
Executive producers: Josh Klausner, Juliet Rylance, Avy Kaufman
Director of photography: Brett Jutkiewicz
Production designer: Dara Wishingrad
Costume designer: Vanessa Porter
Editors: Tricia Cooke, Katherine McQuerrey
Composer: Sven Faulconer
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Hamptons International Film Festival (Views From Long Island)

90 minutes