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Have I seriously been wired to assume I know how romantic comedies will end because so many of them are carbon copies of each other these days? It is like every entry to the genre now has the boy and girl with the wild card ex serving as the plot point for which to break them up and eventually get them back together. It’s been so formulaic for the past decade and a half that I went into 1993’s Mr. Wonderful with the end already played out before I even hit play on the DVD. Yes, the film as a whole brings nothing to the history of cinema that it couldn’t have done without, but the simple fact that it surprised me with who ended up with who has to count for something, (and I also have a soft-spot for fictional ‘where are they now’ epilogues). Looking back, I’m almost ashamed I didn’t figure it out, especially seeing all the clues laid before me now, from the DVD cover to the billing order. Maybe I’ve just become so jaded that the obvious for some reason seems too good to be true and the too good to be true connections seem appropriate. Whatever it is, this film did surprise me with its heart.

He didn’t direct many films, but after this one, the late Anthony Minghella buried his head into epic tales of cinematic splendor. So, forgive me for being taken off-guard and somewhat apprehensive to think this mountain of a man in Hollywood actually worked on a Matt Dillon romancer in the early 90s. That may, however, be a shot at Dillon—whom I am a fan of, in all honesty—and perhaps an over-glorification of the director. The beginning did nothing to necessarily get my hopes up though, composing a montage of electricity and lights, foreshadowing Dillon’s Gus and his occupation, culminating in a very corny and poorly orchestrated title in lights on the waterfront skyline. As far as getting the main crux of the story out quickly, I’ll give the film credit. We learn straight off that Dillon is with Mary-Louise Parker and working extra shifts to pay alimony to his ex-wife, Annabella Sciorra’s Leonora. Lee is back in school looking to receive a degree and get out from the city she grew up, hating the fact she has to take Gus’s money. So, when the opportunity presents itself for him to fulfill an entrepreneurial dream and take a shot at rebuilding the bowling alley he frequented as a child, he must find a way to keep his money. The easy fix—getting his ex married so payments stop.

It is a flimsy premise to say the least, but I do have to give writers Amy Schor and Vicki Polon some credit for making the film more than that sad situation. They have to make Lee a headstrong woman for one—and Sciorra pulls it off beautifully, always an effective actress who disappeared from the screen too soon after the 90s, picking up a lot of television work—so as to stop the audience from thinking she’d be smart to stay single but attached to keep collecting alimony. That’s not her character. Yes she may be involved with a married man, William Hurt’s professor, but she is with him for the culture, not the security. He is someone that can teach her more, someone who can help free her mind. When Lee tells Gus that she will pay him back every cent thrown her way once she gets a job, I completely believed her. And more than that, I knew Dillon’s character believed her too, that is why he finally agreed to try and set her up with a guy, hoping to get out of his debt, but still allowing her to be as happy as he was with Parker.

So, intertwined with the game to get her hitched, while watching how it’s hurting him in the process, are all these sub-plots that help flesh out the film to become more than just a lame duck. The Hurt/Sciorra relationship is intriguing because it continues while she dates these random men; Dillon/Parker is heartbreaking because you can see how much they care for each other, but also how it’s falling apart; and the prospect of buying this dilapidated wreck to turn it into a thriving bowling alley keeps a dream alive while another finds new life in the background. Gus sees this opportunity as a way to get back to the past, to simpler times, casting a shadow on what he truly desires. Add in the small flourishes of artistic license, like the real ‘Mr. Wonderful’ meeting his blind date ‘Funny Face’ as well as the traumatic incident to once and for all wake Gus up to the tenuousness of life and the power of love, and you have a romantic tale that hits home. Even the schoolboy crush that blossoms from Vincent D’Onofrio’s Dominic towards the attractive Sciorra is completely understandable. She is an amazing catch, one-upping his own characterization of having the Three S’s, by adding a fourth—sexy. Asking her to marry him after only four weeks doesn’t quite seem contrived in the context given, even if that question needs to be asked for the film to reach its climax.

Supporting players like D’Onofrio help bump up the enjoyment factor as well, giving us something more than the not-so cookie cutter format on display. I love going back to films from the 80s and 90s to see how far some of these end-credit actors have come, especially when they eventually outshine the leads. No disrespect for Dillon, but he isn’t quite the marquee player he once was. I don’t really see him doing much these days, while guys like Luis Guzmán and James Gandolfini—really great here—are in everything. It’s also a wonder to see how young and gawky Parker was back then in comparison to the stunner she has become during her residence on Showtime’s “Weeds”. In that respect, Mr. Wonderful becomes more a filmed moment in cinematic history, showing us some actors before they became household names. While it might not be hailed as the date movie of the decade, or even a film I had heard about before being lent the disc, it is an important work for those involved, paving the way for the stars they’d become. I’d love to give Minghella the credit for any success it had, adding a little credibility with his stature, but it came before his name was anything to sneeze at. Perhaps the stars just aligned and a decent rom-com was made as a result. I, for one, don’t regret having seen it.

Mr. Wonderful 6/10

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