Friday, April 14, 2000

Wonder Boys / ***1/2 (2000)

The irony behind every man’s destiny is that the path towards success is usually averted by unforeseeable detours. For most, such a turbulence can be caused by almost any element of everyday life: family, serious relationships, social interference, fallback from the world, employment, or a lack of enthusiasm for their fortes. An artist, for instance, can shift off-course if he or she suddenly arrives at the notion that there is no need to paint or sculpt anymore. A writer, in similar fashion, can be suspended by the inability to organize their thoughts and finish the work they have started. As a result we see such people go through mid-life crisis, retirement, depression, and other similar withdrawals from their work. Sometimes, however, those people will go in search of a muse, hoping that inspiration will break the bars of mind’s prison and, once again, set free their creative energies. Now comes a splendid little movie that finds a man on the verge of collapse with his work, but one who looks to a nearby acquaintance to find the strength, and ability, to carry on successfully.

A friend of mine walked by the other day and asked, “what’s the best movie you’ve seen this year?” To that demand, I cheerfully replied, “Wonder Boys,” hoping that he would take my enthusiasm literally and go see the movie, which is what so few people have done in the past month. Many who try hard to catch all the low-key efforts before they are completely overtaken by the wider releases can undoubtedly relate to my situation; it’s so sad to see a great movie like this finally arrive in theaters, only for it to be quickly passed over by an oncoming load of useless, wasted motion pictures (and at this rate, I probably speak for 95 percent of the supply of movies that have come out so far this year).

“Wonder Boys” is like a diamond in a tray of rhinestones, a gem of filmmaking so overshadowed by the recent mainstream crap that many will likely forget its very existence. And that’s a definite shame, considering that the movie was directed by Curtis Hanson, the mastermind behind “L.A. Confidential,” who took almost three years off to decide what his next project should be. Anyone who has seen his Oscar-nominated classic surely knows what he is capable of behind the camera, both with his characters and his screenplay. Hanson proves with “Wonder Boys” that, in that space of three years, his talent as a film director has not deteriorated.

Michael Douglas is the headlining performer here, stepping into the role of Grady Tripp, an English professor who wrote a highly successful novel years ago and promised his publisher to do a second. Unfortunately, seven years have passed and no manuscript has shown up at his desk. The delay? Grady is so far into his book—over 2000 pages—that no ending is in sight.

His personal life, complex from every angle, adds to the pressure of finding a conclusion: a female student named Hannah (Katie Holmes), who rents one of his rooms, makes passes at him; the university’s chancellor, Sara Gaskell (Francis McDormand), is married to someone else but is pregnant with his child; and the novel itself, growing larger by the day, is a constant reminder of how he last lost the enthusiasm for writing the stories. There are other problems that come into play, such as the publisher Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) looming over Grady’s head until the new book is finished, but few of them serve importance in the outline of the story. The development that breaks the ice between Grady and his written work comes when the worn-out professor/author discovers that a student, named James Leer (Tobey Maguire), is gifted with writing talents beyond that of his classmates. What the young student lacks, however, are certain other skills, to which Grady offers his expertise and guidance. What does Grady see in James? Perhaps a younger version of himself, only without all the doubt and lack of ambition.

The movie is based on a novel written by Michael Chabon, which has been hailed by many as a modern classic. Unfortunately, I’ve never read it; but that makes my praising of the film so much more enthusiastic. Moviegoers were recently subjected to “The Cider House Rules,” a film that, despite wide acclaim and nominations for prestigious Oscar awards, was so poorly adapted from the John Irving novel that it was impossible for many unfamiliar with the material, including myself, to successfully follow the film’s message. Writer Steve Kloves does not make that mistake here; the script is smart, sharp, on target, realistic, and smooth from the first minute until the last. It does not demand that the audience be familiar with the texts before venturing into the theater.

The cast itself is made up of first rate stars: Francis McDormand, who gave a marvelous performance in 1996’s “Fargo,” is extremely strong-willed as a woman who is married to another but devoted to Grady and his baby to a full extent; Tobey Maguire is admirable, too, as the writing prodigy who is foreseen as an odd guy by all of his classmates; and Katie Holmes, already cast in countless teen comedies and slashers, is surprisingly effective as the girl who, for some unexplainable reason, is infatuated with a much older man. But Douglas is the absolute winner here as Grady. He carries the role with distinction and uses a touch of nihilism at certain points to deteriorate the hope of finding his way back to the road of success. The performance deserves an Oscar nomination.

“Wonder Boys” is like a dream coming true amongst a slew of forgettable nightmares; it arrived in theaters at just the right time, when unfortunate viewers were forced to sift through all kinds of misfires like “Reindeer Games” and “Eye Of The Beholder” in order to find something worthy of notice. And yet very few people have seen this triumph, likely because they have no idea that it’s actually playing in theaters. Those who go in search for it will be delightedly surprised at how poignant and fun its story and characters are. And the movie is any indication of things to come in 2000, then the year might not be as bad as we first suspected.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Comedy/Drama (US); 2000; Rated R; 112 Minutes

Michael Douglas: Professor Grady Tripp
Tobey Maguire: James Leer
Frances McDormand: Chancellor Sara Gaskell
Robert Downey Jr.: Terry Crabtree
Katie Holmes: Hannah Green

Produced by Ned Dowd, Lisa Grundy, Curtis Hanson, Scott Rudin and Adam Schroeder; Directed by Curtis Hanson; Screenwritten by Steve Kloves; based on the novel by Michael Chabon

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