Wonder Boys
Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Curtis Hanson. Cast: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey, Jr., Rip Torn, Katie Holmes, Richard Knox, Jane Adams, Alan Tudyk, Richard Thomas, Michael Cavadias, Bill Velin, Philip Bosco, June Hildreth, George Grizzard, Kelly Bishop. Screenplay: Steve Kloves (based on the novel by Michael Chabon).

Photo © 2000 Paramount Pictures/Mutual Film Co.
Though Wonder Boys happily foregoes a big soppy monologue on the subject, the movie is palpably fretful about what happens to complex, interesting, quietly ambitious people as they age. In further evidence of the movie's gentle, raffish, but sober wisdom, its vision of "getting older" does not mark a passage from ease and fun to hardship and introspection: the moony, pained James Leer (Tobey Maguire) and the precociously articulate Hannah Green (Katie Holmes) have nearly as much on their minds as do their errant teacher-mentor, the writer Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), or the warm but sharp-edged chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) with whom he's having an affair, or his charming, low-intensity rake of an editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey, Jr.). It's worth mentioning right off that Hannah has worries but not much in the way of actual shortcomings, and you could probably say the same about Sara. By contrast, James is soaked in hang-ups and worries, several of which he may have invented in pursuit of mystique or writerly suffering, or to furnish himself with a suitable objective correlative for an inchoate grief that's lodged inside him; you could probably say the same about Grady, though his internal state feels less like grief than a couple decades of accumulating listlessness. He coasts on at least some parcel of talent, on the students' admiration of his talent (increasingly limned with their skepticism about his personal life and neuroses), and on the projected image of not taking anything too seriously. A fair amount of marijuana is involved in all of this. What this all means is that Wonder Boys really is about its boys, even though it stays admirably aware that men narcissistically or misguidedly work to gobble, or maybe to need, our attention. They aren't born interesting, and the film's actresses, to include Jane Adams as a doe-like waitress, do a gorgeous job of making the women register more richly than the script necessarily demands. The movie is also, inarguably, centered in middle-age, even as Holmes and Maguire exude a charisma that reminds us, ten years later, of just how interesting and promising their careers looked well before they had any viability as headlining stars or any traction as gossip-page fixtures.

These subtle but indisputable tilts in the movie's interests and empathies, accentuated by its dusky, wine-dark color palette and the wistful muffling of even its most farcical sequences (canine assassinations, madcap driving), are both the cause and the effect of privileging Douglas's Grady so strongly as the center of the film's gravity. You could imagine a recalibrated directorial approach or a more subtly chromatic, less self-conscious actor who might have made Grady the modest nucleus of a supporting cast that consistently matched or even outstripped him in energy and color, and who characterized him most fully through their reflections of and effects upon him, rather than the movie lingering so squarely on Grady himself. In the best sequences, this is just Wonder Boys works: Douglas and Downey's tacit pas-de-deux about whether or not Grady has completed his second manuscript, braided with another semi-submerged dialogue about why Terry has brought a transvestite as a traveling companion (and whether he even realizes it) makes for a modest, engaging, unhysterical, and nuanced passage of acting, writing, and quietly artful filmmaking. A cocktail party at the house McDormand shares with her oblivious husband (just a smidge too buffoonish to blend with the movie's other characters) is another especially flavorful interlude. I hope it won't sound pejorative or snobbish to say how adult the movie feels at moments like this; indeed, these sequences bring the fun and the confusion back into the working definition of "adult," staying mindful of various generation gaps but mature enough to recognize how little these "grown-ups" have fully figured out. But the movie, despite such impressive ensemble scene work, despite Dede Allen's generous and integrative cuts to other characters, and despite the script's welcome refusal to make the surrounding characters overly stereotypical or banal, ultimately belongs to Grady, which becomes something of a problem. He narrates in voice-over, and if he gets better lines from Chabon's novel and Steve Kloves's adaptation than offscreen narrators often do, these passages break from the movie's core strength of implicit characterization over clunky assertion, and Douglas reads with a smuggish pride about the "literary" astuteness or cleverness of what Grady is saying. He also saturates the movie with winsome, sleepy, and exasperated reaction shots, he gets punchlines and funny costumes, he watches the typewritten pages of his massive, long-winded, long-gestating novel atomize live a flock of doves into the air, an image the filmmakers treat as an earnest, even plaintive emblem of a life's work undone. By this point, the movie has achieved a poignancy about the difficulty of writing (and living) with real imagination, and the tolls that any long-term project ultimately entail (writing, teaching, collecting, marriage), so the image works, but a more ecumenical, less Grady-centric movie might not have paused so much longer on this sad-comic crisis of his than it tends to allow itself to do for anyone else's epiphanies, worries, or crossroads moments.

I was seduced by Grady and by Douglas's playing of him both times I saw the movie during its initial release; Wonder Boys was the movie that prompted a friend to coin the phrase "a total seer-againer," which I still use all the time. I'm sure that I was, in part, relieved to see Douglas step away from all those lock-jawed Mount Rushmores of assailed masculinity and faux-topical "danger" that he chased so incessantly after Fatal Attraction, and he does settle engagingly into Grady's pilly textures and pot-scented distractability. On reflection, though, it's not an especially nimble or fully-shaded turn, and the film suffers from the chuckly way in which Douglas's acting, like his narration, sometimes reduce the rounded characters and unmistakably novelistic narrative into the stuff from which sitcoms are made—whereas director Curtis Hanson and photographer Dante Spinotti seem so much more interested in the human realities that permeate the surface zaniness and the characters' tendencies to dramatize themselves. Douglas is playing a character who's infatuated with his own myth, even when that behavior causes him problems, as with his massive writer's block, but Douglas seems a little infatuated with the part and with his own performance. Wonder Boys is, in many ways, such a welcome break from most Hollywood fare that one can hardly blame him for his giddiness, which he occasionally uses to enliven the performance, but which he too often allows to blur and overshadow it.

What Wonder Boys has in spades, beyond the heroic self-confidence to make a dramedy with so many non-cartoonish adult and semi-adult characters (and academics at that!), is a terrific sense of economy: you don't, for example, need to see much of the Grady/Sara relationship to glean a strong sense of its moods and backstories, just like you don't need more than one vertiginously high-angled shot of a wet slice of pizza, drooping over a porch railing in the rainy dawn, to "get" everything about the previous night's wild party. But Douglas's self-regarding persona and, I dare add, the story's and the script's notion of Grady seem much less contiguous than I remembered them being with that air of crystallized understatement. The movie pushes him at us, almost as much as that infamously awful poster did. Some of his facets never transcend feeling like "quirks" in the most familiar sense: the narcoleptic episodes, the pink bathrobe, a rare wardrobe-prop that gets caught overacting. Odd that a film and a performance like this wouldn't age quite as well as I had expected, given how frankly they both work to ground their humor and their intelligence in a pithy look at semi-graceless aging. McDormand and Downey have the ingenuity and the tact to make their characters vibrant and surprising without remotely overplaying them; you can't imagine a movie that starred Sara or Terry, because the actors have preserved the characters' mysteries, and they haven't asked for a bit more attention than the movie gives them. Nonetheless, Wonder Boys seems to lose something by leaning so heavily on Douglas's Grady to carry it. Maybe he's a character you can only meet so many times before he starts to look more careworn and conventional; maybe three trips to Wonder Boys is too much, although I had certainly pegged it as a total seer-againer-againer. If Douglas and Hanson have aimed to make Grady as simultaneously weary and jazzed, as stuck in his rhythms but as kaleidoscopic in his inflections as Bob Dylan's Oscar-winning theme song is, they have come enticingly close, with marvelous highs along the way (not just the narcotic kind), but they haven't fully got there. Granted, this is quite a lot of harping about a movie that I truly enjoy and admire, and which impresses on so many registers. Wonder Boys remains an eminently watchable and satisfying divertissement, and if it hadn't made such an impression on me and on so many critics and friends at the time of its release, I would dwell more on what's plucky and smartly seasoned in the movie instead of the equivocal aftertaste I took away from this recent return. Maybe it's the movie; maybe it's me; one way or the other, things have changed. B

(in April 2000: A–)

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Adapted Screenplay: Steve Kloves
Best Film Editing: Dede Allen
Best Original Song: "Things Have Changed"

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Actor (Drama): Michael Douglas
Best Screenplay: Steve Kloves
Best Original Song: "Things Have Changed"

Other Awards:
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actor (Douglas); Best Supporting Actress (McDormand; also cited for Almost Famous)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Screenplay (tie)
Satellite Awards: Best Actor, Musical/Comedy (Douglas)

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