Wonder Boys
directed by Curtis Hanson
(Paramount, 2000)

The cover of the Wonder Boys video bills the film as a comedy about bright potential derailed.

And that description's not even aimed at Robert Downey Jr., who plays a literary agent to Michael Douglas' professor/novelist. Instead, it's aimed at most of the Wonder Boys lead cast, all of whom are struggling with finding their way, with making -- or not making -- choices.

It's a movie about becoming, and being, an adult, about finding a new path when the old one grows cold and about deciding in the end what most matters to you. And to top it off, it has some of the best bittersweet/funny moments about that whole wonderful, painful process.

That's due in no small part to Douglas, whose Grady Tripp begins Wonder Boys as a self-absorbed professor at an insular liberal arts college in Pittsburgh. He's not a cruel guy, but his ultimate lack of direction has triggered a "really bad day." His young wife has left him, he learns his married lover is pregnant with his child and his agent is coming to town.

That last arrival is no small beans. Grady's agent, Terry Crabtree, is impatiently waiting for Grady's followup to the critically acclaimed novel he wrote seven years before. Crabtree's job -- and Grady's reputation -- depends on it.

And Grady, more than 2,000 single-spaced, typewritten pages into this opus, can't figure out how to make it end. So instead of untangling the personal messes in his life, Grady instead faces a weekend chauffeuring Crabtree around to campus events, dodging questions about his writing and trying to fit a personal life in among the professional crises.

Director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) does a remarkable job of balancing this mania without letting it dissolve into histrionics. It's the pacing of Wonder Boys that's a wonder. It may be due in part to Michael Chabon, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winner for literature whose novel is the basis for this well-informed film.

But there's something deeper.

Along with Douglas' vanity-free performance, there's a wealth of talent in Wonder Boys that's never relegated to the outskirts of Grady's life.

His lover, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), is a college dean who's married to Grady's department chair. His star student, James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is a brilliant writer, a young man whose writing rings of truth even when his actions don't. His student boarder, Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), is a not-so-innocent young woman whose knack for cutting through the morass of Grady's writing is sharper than the writing itself.

And Crabtree is an agent who can't decide whether to apply himself or derail his own career.

Director Hanson has pulled, from each of these actors, a performance that complements the others, that's sympathetic even when they're doing something stupid, and a movie that manages to be a comedy even in its darkest moments, a serious film even when it's funny.

There are small touches -- a baby-faced policeman who forgets to put his car in "park," a waitress who "never forgets a drink," a sweater belonging to Marilyn Monroe -- that Hanson leaves time for, not because they're always crucial to the plot but because unhurried details like this make good movies great.

"You know," Hannah tells Grady as she plows through his 2,000-page manuscript, "you tell us in class that writing's all about making choices. (This) sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices. At all."

Finding those choices and having the courage to make them is what Wonder Boys, finally, is all about.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 17 November 2001

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