Wonder Boys


Wonderful! Magnificent! Aaah! Here’s one of the best written, directed and acted films I’ve seen in, well, a while. Then why dead-end February release date? This should have been released in time for Oscar consideration. Somehow like “American Beauty” (which should sweep the next Academy Awards), “Wonder Boys” is an American classic in the true sense, a human comedy filled with subtlety and insight about a middle-aged man who reevaluates the way he lives his life. Plus, and this is rather rare for me (“American Beauty” didn’t even do that), I felt so involved with the characters and was so gripped by the story that I forgot I was watching a movie.

At its core, “Wonder Boys” is about writing. A movie about writing? Well, it’s based on a book, and then as visual as they can be, films have to be written too, right? And this Steve Kloves adaptation of a 1995 Michael Chabon novel is simply a marvel of storytelling. First it’s a very layered look at a time and a place, namely a Pittsburgh university campus in the late ’90s. It’s wintertime, and everything is cold, and gray. This is an “old” world, where buildings are ancient and aging men and women preside over eager young minds. And then the film introduces its compelling, fully-developed characters, embodied by a very strong cast. Michael Douglas stars, and he’s so good that he makes you forget about his usual movie persona, the despicable, oversexed millionaire. I didn’t watch Douglas in this film, I was following Grady Tripp, a fiftysomething author whose first novel was an award-winning, successful masterpiece 7 years ago, yet he hasn’t published anything since. He doesn’t have writer’s block, au contraire: he’s more than 2000 single-spaced pages into his follow-up, and the end still seems far off. Meanwhile, he’s been conducting writing workshops at the university and watching marriage after marriage crumble…

The film takes place during the college’s annual Word Fest, which will turn out to be a decisive week-end in Tripp’s life. His third wife (unseen on-screen) leaves him, his mistress (Frances McDormand) tells him she’s pregnant with his baby, which is tricky since she’s the chancellor of the university and she’s married to the head of the English department (Richard Thomas), his boss! As if it wasn’t enough, his party loving gay editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town to pressure him about his novel, and the bright, sassy student (Katie Holmes) who rents a room in his house is trying to seduce him. And then there’s James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a confused but brilliant young writer who looks up to Tripp, as if he was any kind of role model! Maybe he is, after all, as he was once a ‘wonder boy’ himself… Mentor and protégé are in for one hell of a ride involving a dead dog, lots of pot smoking, the theft of the jacket Marilyn Monroe wore when she wed Joe Dimaggio, an unsafe mix of bourbon and codeine, a drag queen…

There are so much weird twists and turns in this film that is could play as all-out comedy, but director Curtis Hanson wisely chooses not to rush for the laughs and take the time to stop for all these quiet little moments of truth. Yes, the film is often hilarious and surprisingly exciting, but it’s really an expertly crafted, intelligent character piece, a mature film about inspiration and choices. Hanson hasn’t lost any of the skill and confidence he showed in his “L.A. Confidential”. “Wonder Boys” should easily make my 2000 top ten.