The most expressive feature of Matthew Broderick’s character in Wonderful World is his facial hair, a permanent 5 o’clock shadow that suggests a man who can barely bring himself to get up in the morning, much less to shave. The movie could be called a journey to Gillette, and it’s an agonizing one at that, a paint-by-numbers tale of redemption for a man whose wounds are mostly self-inflicted. Playing the latest in a long line of world-weary schlubs, Broderick evinces sympathy where other actors might not, and writer-director Joshua Goldin certainly has his heart in the right place. But it takes the grace of two Senegalese immigrants and heaven above to set this character’s life on course, and the effort is grossly disproportionate to his problems.
As the film opens, Broderick is logging his eighth year at a dead-end proofreading job for a law firm and living in a cramped efficiency with his Senegalese roommate (The Wire’s Michael K. Williams), who treats him to nightly chess matches and occasional nuggets of homespun wisdom. Once a semi-popular children’s folk singer, Broderick has now tabled his dreams of being an acoustic guitarist, and his bitterness poisons his relationship with his ex-wife and adolescent daughter (Jodelle Ferland), who no longer wants to see him. Broderick’s fortunes change when Williams falls into a diabetic coma and his sister Saana Lathan comes all the way from Africa to be by his side.
It’s no surprise that Lathan’s sunny personality chips away at Broderick’s dogged mopeyness, but then, nothing in Wonderful World is that surprising, other than the extent to which the universe conspires to give him some measure of happiness. Broderick’s tendency to hang all his problems on corporate greed and heartless bureaucracy leads to some strange missteps, including a quixotic lawsuit against the city for “reckless indifference” in caring for his roommate and an ongoing metaphysical conversation with “The Man,” played by an ill-used Philip Baker Hall. It’s all too much baggage for Broderick—and such a slight movie—to bear.