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Dustin Putman

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Wonder Boys (2000)
3 Stars

Directed by Curtis Hanson
Cast: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey Jr., Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Michael Cavaias, Richard Thomas, Rip Torn, Jane Adams, Richard Knox, Philip Bosco.
2000 – 112 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for profanity and mild violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 26, 2000.

The life of Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is at a standstill, never pushing forward because he is afraid to commit to everything in his life. A English professor at a college in Pittsburgh, Grady wrote one acclaimed novel seven years ago, but has since kept his readers waiting for a sophomore effort. He has been writing a second novel, all right, but he still hasn't completed it, and is currently on page 2611. Grady smokes marijuana almost continuously, and when not in school, is rarely seen without wearing his bathrobe. Recently, he has been carrying on an affair with the school's chancellor, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), despite them both being married to other people. Such behavior is used, in essence, because he is always attempting to shield himself from the world, and from the reality that he is a 50-year-old who still hasn't come-of-age.

That compelling, if not terribly fresh, idea is at the center of "Wonder Boys," directed by Curtis Hanson (1997's "L.A. Confidential"), and written by Steve Kloves with a surprising literacy and intelligence that is rarely conspicuous in today's Hollywood-made features. Set over an eventful weekend in which an annual literature festival is in full swing at the campus, Grady's life seems to be unraveling more and more by the second. At the start, his wife leaves him, and although she has walked out on Grady before, she always came back. Taking time to be alone for a few fleeting seconds during her party, Sara tells Grady that she is positive she is pregnant, and it has to be his child. Sara, an independent, fair-minded woman, makes it clear that she loves him, but isn't going to let her whole life pass her by as she waits for him to make up his mind on what he wants.

Things grow more complicated with the appearance of Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), his editor, eager to get ahold of his latest writing opus, who is in town for the weekend and has a thing for picking up various people, the latest of which is the alluring Antonia Sloviak (Michael Cavaias), whom everyone but Terry realizes is a transvestite. Stepping outside for a smoke at the party, Grady discovers his unusual, but highly gifted student James Leer (Tobey Maguire) with what he says is a cap gun in his hand. James, whose writing is ten times better than all of his fellow students' will ever be, is constantly put down by his classmates (who are obviously jealous), yet takes their comments to heart and has settled into a depression. That is only the beginning of an unconventional bond that forms between Grady and James, both of whom need someone to wake them up to their realities, and a string of eccentric plot threads that involve a murdered pooch; the coat Marilyn Monroe wore the day she was married; the scholarly Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), one of Grady's students, who rents a room in his house and unmistakably has a crush on him; and the erratic Vernon Hardapple (Richard Knox), who mysteriously is stalking Grady, with his fresh-faced, pregnant girlfriend, Oola (Jane Adams), in tow.

Structurally, a very laid-back bittersweet comedy, one is never quite sure where "Wonder Boys," based on the novel by Michael Chabon, is headed because, ultimately, there is nowhere for it to go. This is not necessarily meant as a criticism, although it does give the picture an occasionally uneven tone, but rather a distinct observation, because the film has little to do with "plot," and almost everything to do with Grady Tripp, an insecure man without a clue to what he wants from anything. Wandering around rather aimlessly from one scene, and character, to the next, what remains the focus is Grady, as everyone around him acts as little more than instigators biding their time until he discovers within himself what he wants to make out of the rest of his days.

Almost everything is dependent on Michael Douglas' central performance, and he genuinely impresses. Getting rid of all of his previous characters' somewhat similar pretensions, Douglas has crafted a memorably vivid film character in Grady Tripp, and always makes him completely likable and understanding to those around him, a refreshing twist that keeps his role from becoming a cliche.

Tobey Maguire, who has made a career, thus far, in playing young, understated everybodys, takes a giant step forward this time with his most eccentric role, to date. His James Leer is a peculiar individual, a college student who loves writing and has a sort of obsession for trivia about deceased movie stars. One never gets a complete sense of who James is, but that is appropriate because James is clearly unsure himself, although there is no doubt in anyone's mind that, with his writing expertise, he is destined to become a published author soon down the road.

In supporting roles, Robert Downey Jr. is a standout, even more so than usual, and it is performances like this that make you wish he would lay off the drugs and get his own life together, not unlike Grady. His portrayal of the dedicated and loyal, if perverse, Terry Crabtree is right on the money, and the gentle, if slight, relationship that forms between him and James, who begin to sleep with each other, is one that isn't given much screen time, but has a sort of oddball affection about it. After all, like everyone, Terry is only looking for love, but by pursuing one fling after the next, he simply has a strange way of searching.

It is nice to see Frances McDormand in a high-profile movie once again, and she proves that she is so very good, it doesn't matter that Sara is underwritten. McDormand single-handedly pulls the viewer into the character and gets them to care about what happens to her, and the fate of her relationship with Grady. The same holds true for Katie Holmes, as Hannah, who is only given a handful of substantial scenes, but is excellent in each one. With 1997's "The Ice Storm" (also starring Maguire), 1999's "Go," and now "Wonder Boys," Holmes is sure to stick around for a very long time, choosing interesting projects and notable supporting roles that wisely distances her from her "Dawson's Creek" character. Last, Michael Cavaias, as Antonia/Tony, makes a brief, but nonetheless exceptional, turn that, in each one of his scenes early on, steals the attention away from even Douglas and Downey Jr.

Technical attributes that should be pointed out include cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who paints the film with gorgeous visual strokes of the bleak, wintry Pittsburgh landscapes, while the soundtrack, which features such great artists as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Lennon, and Van Morrison, is perfectly realized.

"Wonder Boys" may not be perfect (for example, I wish the ending had led up to a little more than there is with some of the characters), but director Curtis Hanson has crafted an assured, well-made piece of work that shows just how smart a studio picture can be. And in Grady Tripp, he and screenwriter Kloves have created an unforgettable screen character. Grady may not be a faultless human being, but in his gradual emotional transformation from a child into an adult, and in his willingness to live the way he wants to at any given moment, he is remarkable. Like his pupil James Leer, he is a wonder boy, indeed.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman