Movie Review: Wonderful World (2009)

Way undervalued film of way undervalued lives ___ 10/10
Review by Brian Wright

Wonderful LifeThe Man: How much of your life is your fault, and how much is the world’s? That is your big question. You have no career, you’ve been fired from your job, your own daughter won’t speak to you. Bottom line, you can’t even earn a living.
Singer: That’s what it’s all about for you, isn’t it? Money.
The Man: Let’s leave money out of the equation, what would you like it to be all about?

Directed by Joshua Goldin
Written by Joshua Goldin

Matthew Broderick … Ben Singer
Sanaa Lathan … Khadi
Michael Kenneth Williams … Ibu
Philip Baker Hall … The Man
Jesse Tyler Ferguson … Cyril
Jodelle Ferland … Sandra
Ally Walker … Eliza

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There’s a word onomatopoeia, one of the few words I learned in high school whose definition has stayed with me for some reason, it means the use of words that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to. [For example, rustle is a bit ‘onomatopoetic’ (hear the sound of leaves… or skirts doing it).] Well, I picked up the movie Wonderful World from the 3-for-$5 table at Blockbuster, then checked its rating on IMDb, a paltry 6.0. Not much hope there. Same for the lead character in the movie, Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick): he’s a divorced former musician who works at a crummy job and has lost hope, as well. This movie seems like a cinematic onomatopoeia of its subject.

SenegalThe few things he regards as special in this life are his friend Ibu (Michael Kenneth Williams), a visitor from Senegal, Africa, to whom Ben has rented half of Ben’s apartment; Ben’s daughter Sandra (Jodelle Ferland); and a wistful indulgence of his own virtuoso acoustic-guitar playing. [Ben had been a ‘phenom’ in children’s concerts, where he would fill auditoriums with simple song, strum, and banter: the kids would laugh, keep time, and sing along, enthralled.]

Ben did have some CDs produced, but the firm who promised to promote him didn’t follow through; he fell into obscurity and depression, and, ever since, has become a negative person in all directions. The movie starts with him basically flippin’ off an SUV-driving neighbor guy over a parking issue, for which you can see Ben is somewhat to blame. Then we see his day at the office, and a Saturday with his daughter; he only backs off the negativity when he’s with his special ones, even then not entirely.

Ibu is a special person, knowledgeable and curious, always a bright spot in Singer’s day:

Ibu: Did you know there is a new study that says cinnamon is good for the heart? Seriously, dark chocolate lowers the blood pressure, tannins in red wine, all the medicine we’ll ever need is in the food. 20 years from now you will have cancer, the doctor will make you a salad.

Ibu is also a Type 1 diabetic. One morning Ibu goes into insulin shock and Ben has to get him some help. Problem is the neighbor Ben dissed is having Ben’s car towed. Ben pleads with the driver that there is a medical emergency… to no avail, the driver is a cretin. Off the car goes while Ibu is left unconscious and Ben scrambles to call an ambulance. Ibu is eventually got to the hospital where he remains in a diabetic coma. Only good thing to come of it: Khadi (Sanaa Lathan), Ibu’s sister. She arrives for Ibu from Senegal. Khadi is special, and I’ll let the viewers discover just how special as you enjoy the rest of the movie and the resolution she brings to Battered Ben’s woeful, self-undervalued life.

I could go on and on about the subtleties and creative nuances in Wonderful World:

  • The music—esp. at one point Ben jamming simple ditties on guitar with friends, integrated with African sounds.
  • The humor—e.g. Eliza (Ally Walker), Ben’s ex-wife: “Why are you dressed as a pizza delivery boy?” Ben: “I just got off work.” Eliza: “What happened to proofreading?” Ben: “I wanted something more challenging.”
  • The love—such as a small scene where Khadi lightly caresses Ben’s face, at which he registers just the correct amount of astonishment at the tenderness.
  • The children’s behavior—Writer/director Goldin delicately captures a few special moments of the innocent gaiety of being a child.

Combine such scenes with an uncanny atmosphere of utter realism—I swear this is exactly what the reality would be were you to step inside the celluloid world—from slightly dirty streets, to dealings with the ex-wife who married again for money, to waking up with a roach and making your way to the bathroom. It staggers me that Wonderful World has not lit up the awards circuit, and that writer/director Goldin and the principal actors weren’t the talk of the town. This movie is the quintessence of a diamond in the rough, truly, an utter masterpiece that I have to believe will be widely ‘discovered’ one day as such. Don’t take my word for it, shell out $1.69 so you can own it after giving it a spin.

Outraged at the city’s parking enforcement for lack of compassion for or understanding of Ibu’s condition, Ben decides to bring legal action. I end my review with Ben’s courtroom speech, which I took the trouble to write down, myself, from the DVD playback:

I know I’m just a joke to you, and you only decided to hear my case because you’re amused. Some crackpot acting as his own attorney accusing the city of depraved indifference. Do you know what the most crowded room is in the Getty Museum? It’s the room with Van Gogh’s Irises. Why? Because someone bought the painting for 54 million dollars. There’s a reverential silence in the Iris room; Mr. and Mrs. Museum Goer might as well be looking at a framed pile of cash. Newspapers publish movie grosses, if a movie grosses over a hundred million dollars, we assume it must be good. There’s no God, there’s no beauty, if a painting or a CD doesn’t sell, throw it out.

The 910 Freeway has a very sharp turn as it winds into the valley from the hills. And every year four or five motorists are killed on this spot. And the city conducted a costs and effects study, and concluded that the cost in terms of human life was not equal to the cost of rebuilding the highway. And so this deadly spot on the highway remains and in five years 20 more people will die. Well if this isn’t depraved indifference, I don’t know what is.

Ibu Endai came here from Senegal; he worked as a guard in an outlet store in Carson. He’s a great chess player, he’s my friend. And, uh, he was thrown away. Well, what kind of a world do we live in that his life is worth less than this Nobody’s [pointing at neighbor] ability to get quickly into a parking space. Or the city impound’s need to for revenue so that each one of these amoebas [city attorneys] can have a beach house in Miami. Is that really the kind of world we want to live in?

Khadi relays to Ben from letters she receives from Ibu, “He says you are a good man.” The movie shows us he is also a complex man whose view of the world is not only pessimistic, but realistic and sympathetically humane. And timely. My goodness, Ben’s indictment of ‘the more’ society could not be more on target to where most Americans live. What a gem! Until I watched it a second time I hadn’t sufficient appreciation. I envy those of you about to see it for your first.

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