I am usually annoyed by films based on novels about novelists. Really, it’s like the author couldn’t think of anything else to write about. `Write what you know.’ That’s what the writing instructors tell you. But a novel about a writer makes it seem like writing is all you know. Who, except other writers, would want to read it? The opening scenes of Wonder Boys, however, buried whatever hang-ups I had. This story is less about writing than it is about the tortured souls that produce it.
This film is a departure from anything I’ve seen before. Really, has there ever been another major studio movie set in Pittsburgh? It’s about time. Here’s another departure: Wonder Boys triumphs as a character study. How many comedies can claim this? And a great comedy it is. Who can’t appreciate the fact that one of the most important characters driving the story is a blind dog that’s locked in a car trunk for most of the movie?
Not to be upstaged by said dog, Michael Douglas turns in his best performance since Wall Street. Douglas plays the ultimate tortured soul, Grady Tripp, a much-respected, award-winning, and soon-to-be divorced University of Pittsburgh writing prof, wrestling as many artists do with a novel that refuses to end. One of his students, James Leer (Tobey Maguire in his best performance ever), is trying his hardest to be a poor, struggling artist and is looking to be inspired. James all but cons his way into Grady’s life and the scenes between these two crackle with life. James has his own novel he’s finished, and Grady’s editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey, Jr.), believes he’s found a true `wonder boy,’ the next big thing. The film then dangles these questions in front of us: How will Grady find a balance between helping James, fulfilling James’ expectations of his hero, and dealing with the fact that this kid is On The Verge while he himself is on page 1163 and counting? Always poignant and dazzling, the film’s writer never strays from his characters in favor of overdramatization. Many opportunities exist and Mr. Kloves always wisely passes.
Grady’s relationship problems are also piling up. The story takes place over the course of one weekend, and Grady is faced with one dilemma after another involving his married girlfriend, Sara (Frances MacDormand), the school’s chancellor, his boarder and student Hannah (Katie Holmes, who will shine once she finds that good, meaty starring role), and of course his estranged wife (played by no one at all).
There’s a lot to love about Wonder Boys and I assure you I’ve merely grazed the surface. The real reason I went to see it, though it looked interesting enough from the trailers, was Curtis Hanson. I liked parts of L.A. Confidential enough to see what other tricks he has up his sleeve. I must say that his work here is much more accomplished than Confidential, despite the fact that most critics thought it deserved to beat Titanic a couple of years back. I hope this gives you an idea of just how good I think Wonder Boys is. Unfortunately, this is an early-year, low-budget comedy about scholarly people, and Mr. Hanson will most likely be recognized for the mystery thriller that came before it.
I want to be wrong, so don’t miss Wonder Boys.
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