Wondrous Oblivion, directed by Paul Morrison, takes all of the triumph over adversity via sports PG movies, such as Chariots of Fire, Far From Heaven, and Sandlots, and rolls them up into one family-friendly ball to attempt the ultimate feel-good experience.
Set in the racial turbulent and gleefully anachronistic late-50s South London, the movie follows David Wiseman, a young Jewish boy, through every movie-loop Morrison can throw at him. Wiseman is an avid collector, always learning, but never doing; he wants to play cricket, but just can’t seem get his act together. His new, Jamaican neighbor, Dennis Samuels (Delroy Lindo), has world-class cricket skill, but their relationship creates waves in their ignorant, working-class neighborhood. His mother (Emily Woof) explores new womanhood in Samuels and must find the right place for her neighbor but also her husband, the overworked sometimes-unloving Victor Wiseman. And, to be certain all basis are covered, here, David’s grandparents both died in the Holocaust.
Early on, these myriad themes severely block the mood. Is this a movie about collection vs. action? About acceptance of the other? About a journey through adolescence? The trials of a working marriage? The answer to all these questions is “yes, kind of”. But sadly, “kind of” isn’t a great phrase when critiquing. The only tone the movie can consistently muster is “light-hearted” … kind of.
Granted, all of these quasi-plots are interesting and engaging. Watching Ruth Wisemans’s descent into a secret love, Victor’s struggle to communicate with his son, and David’s desperate attempt to grow up is fun. Oddly enough, the least beneficial plot thread to the story is David’s cricket playing – which is more than appreciated. Of all the light-hearted movie stories, the underdog kid becoming the sports star gets old the quickest. In the extras, Morrison says a line that rings particularly poignant: “We wouldn’t bowl a bowl that doesn’t mean anything.”
Indeed, every cricket match in the movie serves as an important visual metaphor to David’s development. Not only is this idea important to the overall intentions of the film, but it also lets in cricket-naïve viewers to a movie about complex sport with silly uniforms and mandatory tea breaks.
Helping out the uneven feel is some wonderful acting. Lindo is warm, embracing, and carries the swagger of a genuinely confident man outside his element. And Woof ‘s repressed Jewish housewife, Ruth, is unsure, convinced, and nurturing all in the same crooked smile. Woof (who looks like the perfect combination of Jennifer Gray and Diane Franklin) adeptly keeps Ruth’s innocence, even through her attempted affair. Even Sam Smith does an adequate job portraying young David Wiseman.
On the viewer’s end, much of the film is spent trying to balance scales between the characters, stories and feels. Sadly, this workload severely hurts by making us feel frustrated during scenes that are supposed to be happy and vice versa. As it stands, the only solace we can find is in the jovial, well-edited montage segments showing David’s cricket training. But even those, within context, seem unnatural and forced. In many ways, the film could’ve worked much better as a novel. With so many characters, and so many stories, chapter breaks would be much appreciated. Segmented sections dedicated to certain characters or plot arcs could create much-needed breath while still allowing for the covoluted plot developments.
But—and here’s the big “but”—after all this frustration, confusion, mixed emotions and exasperated groans, the movie is genuine and rewarding. How is this possible? Through subtlety, calculation and an educated eye, Morrison makes every clichéd, cathartic act ring true. For example, when the Samuels’ house is burned down and Dennis is caught inside, neither of the Wisemans we’ve learned so much about attempt to rescue him. Instead, it’s the silent and barely developed father, Victor, who comes to the rescue and delivers the “you-should-all-be-ashamed, we-should-all-be-ashamed” speech. Somehow, this disseminates the scene’s hackneyed parts. Shortly thereafter, Victor’s character more fully develops and in the process, reveals his family’s mistaken judgments against him and the hidden bias of our point-of-view. Another possibly trite scene showing the “yids” learn the “soulful ways” of Jamaican culture (including an awkward booty-shakin’ lesson) comes off inviting and enlightening instead of banal and overdone. The juxtaposition of first-wave ska and David’s proper dress and fastidious expression works perfectly. Somehow, this derailed train rights itself as many time as necessary.
Warm-hearted, family-friendly, PG-rated entertainment rarely breaks artistic boundaries. Wondrous Oblivion won’t cover any new ground on social matters, but its intent is genuine, and its characters lovable.