Quirky 'Wonder Boys' survives on its acting
By JILLIAN DEPAUL
Scene Movie Critic
"Wonder Boys," starring Michael Douglas and it-boy Tobey Maguire, is the long-awaited follow-up to Curtis Hanson's 1997 masterpiece "L.A. Confidential," a widely praised neo-noir film about organized crime in 1950s Los Angeles.
Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, as the case may be, Hanson's current project is about a professor and writer named Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas). Tripp is struggling to finish his long-awaited second book, a follow up to his best selling first effort. Perhaps Hanson wanted to broaden his horizons by directing a comedy or, more likely, he was attracted to this very personal story. Either way, "Wonder Boys" is a conscious departure for the director, and a very interesting case of art imitating life.
"Wonder Boys" is a quirky movie that tells the story of one wild weekend when everything in Grady Tripp's life, and the lives of several other people, comes crashing down. For starters, his wife leaves him. His mistress, Frances McDormand, who is also the chancellor of the liberal arts college where he teaches, tells him she is pregnant. Not to mention that his editor (Robert Downey Jr.), who's in town for the annual Wordfest (think Sophomore Literary Festival), is trying to get a look at Grady's book, the ending of which, as Grady puts it, "keeps getting further away."
It would not be accurate to say that Grady has writer's block. In fact, he suffers from a case quite the opposite. His book is 2,611 pages long and is still going strong. To add to this insanity, Grady gets mixed up in the lives of two of his students. One of these students is the mysterious James Leer (Tobey Maguire), who may be homeless and suicidal or a pathological liar, but is definitely a talented writer. The other student is Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), who rents a room from Grady and has a crush on him.
Other storylines include a dead dog, a jacket that was worn by Marilyn Monroe and a crazy James Brown look-alike, whose name may or may not be Vernon.
As this seemingly directionless film barrels on, it acquires new characters and new storylines almost compulsively. As a result, pretty much everything in this movie is underdeveloped. Although this is a detriment to the film because its characters and dialogue are so original, it also manages to keep its audience interested through some pricelessly funny moments and insightful narration by Michael Douglas along the way.
It would be easy to cast this movie off as tangential and spineless, but that would be missing the point. The spine of the movie is all of these tangents. Hanson, who wove together thousands of characters and storylines so brilliantly in "L. A. Confidential," has managed to do it again, almost.
The film definitely spirals out of control at certain points, but it succeeds in illustrating the central idea that reflects Socrates' philosophy about life being the journey, not the destination. This is why the film's main character, Tripp, is so aptly named. Does this underlying message justify the trite ending, which wraps up all the loose ends far too easily? Maybe. If you haven't written this film off before the final thought, you will probably buy that too.
Despite the fact that the characters never reach their fullest potential, "Wonder Boys" is well-acted. It is always refreshing when Michael Douglas ("Wall Street," "A Perfect Murder") takes a break from playing sexual deviants and murderous business tycoons to portray a character with some heart and emotion.
His co-star, Tobey Maguire, has definitely got that troubled, soft-spoken teenager thing down pat. There is something intriguing about his deliberate speech and pensive cadence, as seen in films like "The Cider House Rules" and "The Ice Storm."
One of the most enjoyable things about "Wonder Boys" is its literary frame of mind. It is a film about a writer who sees the world as a piece of fiction. Grady finds truth and meaning in literature but has trouble translating that truth into reality, which is why his personal life is in shambles. The structure of this film purposely reflects the dilemma of his overdue book. The longer it gets, the further it gets away from the truth, which is actually quite simple.
"Wonder Boys" is an offbeat film, original and creatively comic. What a long, strange "Tripp" it's been.
3 and a 1/2 out of 5 shamrocks
All Scene Stories for Thursday, March 2, 2000