A lot of what plays out in 'Wonder Boys' resembles what happens when you
tinker with a jack-in-the-box. Things pop up unexpectedly, and for the
film's characters, sometimes in a pleasing manner and sometimes not. The
film brings up the stereotype that has followed many writers around their
entire lives. The booze, the womanizing, the drugs, and their sometimes
whacked out personality that have inspired such great works in the literary
field and the whole film is a merry-go-round of hilarious pop culture with
redemption as its true message.
Set mostly in Pittsburgh, Michael Douglas gives his best performance in
years, probably since his Oscar winning turn for best actor in 1987's 'Wall
Street', as a seemingly washed up college professor named Grady Tripp who
teaches writing but can't teach himself how to get his own life in order.
He carries on an affair with two women from opposite ends of the spectrum.
One is with a student named Hannah Green (Katie Holmes) and the other is
with the institution's Chancellor, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand).
Plaguing Grady is the fact that he has promised his long time editor Terry
Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) that he would have a book completed for him in
time for their next meeting when Terry flies in from New York City.
Bothering Grady further is a writer named Quentin "Q" Morewood (Rip Torn),
who cranks out a novel every eighteen months which causes Grady to be
extremely jealous. One night at a party at the Chancellor's home, Grady
comes face to face socially with one of his students named James Leer (Tobey
Maguire). James is the deadpan weirdo that most of his class have come to
despise. He writes obtuse material that is somehow absorbing, shocking and
funny and carries his writer's technique into his real life. He often makes
things up, such as the fictional town that he says he's from, as he goes
along to tell others about his life and it all seems incredibly plausible,
the mark of a successful writer.....I suppose. At the party, James gets
into some serious mischief involving a jacket that used to belong to Marilyn
Monroe, a vicious blind dog that meets with the discharge from a firearm and
the fact that he has dragged his beloved professor through all of it at the
same time. The after math of this bizarre social gathering is sort of what
makes 'Wonder Boys' the entertaining film that it is. It starts off rather
slowly but propels itself like fireworks when it finally gets going.
For the average movie person with upstanding tastes, 'Wonder Boys' is a film
that may be hard to focus on. Don't think that the title means all the
characters are WONDERful in terms of their upstanding traits. You have to
accept its moral abyss in order to enjoy it. The characters are all
fractured inside somehow by life's twists and turns. The sex, the downbeat
feeling that shows why few smile in this film and the messed up activities
at times resemble a frat party and all the while you somehow want to be in
on the action which is strangely seductive.
Curtis Hanson, who directed and co-wrote 1997's 'L.A. Confidential', does a
complete 180 here in brilliant fashion. The material in 'Wonder Boys'
couldn't be more different. 'L.A. Confidential' was a hard boiled, hard
nosed and hard edged film about police corruption with zero tolerance for
humour while 'Wonder Boys' relies entirely on humour, sometimes the kind
that feels like you've hit your funny bone on something hard but with so
many wonderful performances on the plate, why leave anything on it. One of
the most intriguing scenes has Douglas on the phone with the Chancellor's
husband (Richard Thomas), telling him that he's in love with his wife and
all the while acting stone faced through it. For reaction purposes, one of
the most difficult challenges for an actor is to do a successful phone
conversation as you have to act like you'll never know what you'll hear and
Douglas pulls it off superbly.
More importantly than that is the performance of Tobey Maguire. He upstages
Douglas at many points and to do this to an Oscar winning actor, is a
marvel. It's probably the best upstaging from a young performer on a
veteran since Juliette Lewis did it many times to Robert De Niro in 1991's
'Cape Fear'. This is Maguire's breakthrough role as performances in
'Pleasantville' and 'The Cider House Rules' have sort of warmed him up for
his first truly spectacular role and this is it. He and Douglas could be
Oscar bound next year for these truly human performances of candour and
sharp wit. 'Wonder Boys' is hardly conventional film making. It's genius
layered with sensational off beat characters who are the real wonder!
Copyright © 2000 Walter Frith