Preoccupied by his endless second novel, Professor Tripps marriage is collapsing, as is his affair with college dean Sara. Matters come to a head one weekend, during which Tripp must negotiate predatory agent Crabtree, disturbed student James Leer, Maril
Curtis Hanson’s breakthrough movie (let’s forgive him such early endeavours as 1994’s The River Wild) was hewn from the endlessly cinematic crime world of James Ellroy; shooting L.A. Confidential was mostly a matter of ironing out the Byzantine plot. Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, however, presented a different challenge. A dense, introspective story of writer’s block and literary rivalry, Chabon’s novel is relatively untroubled by plot and handsomely burdened with character. By all accounts it should not translate into a good movie, but by sticking to his source material’s strengths, Hanson, aided by Steve Kloves’ erudite script, has gone one better: he’s made a great movie.
Apparently, they don’t make movies like this anymore. Don Simpson and his ‘high concept’ ‘80s juggernaut had, it seemed, killed off the 1970s’ independent spirit (Wonder Boys plays like a joyous companion to Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces). As this film illustrates, this is thankfully not so.
Unfortunately, we are all so spoiled, so spoon-fed, by the Simpson-style blockbuster, that the rarefied pleasures of Wonder Boys may escape you the first time around. Like all mood pieces, Wonder Boys requires a degree of patience - and if it fails to catch you in the right frame of mind, there is a real danger of, ‘What was all that about?’ syndrome. This movie refuses to grab you - it percolates into your conscious.
And yet Wonder Boys is that rare thing: a witty screenplay, unafraid of slapstick; a heart-felt drama, devoid of sentiment; and a complex story, presented with admirable simplicity. Hanson does not rely on tricks - everything is as it should be, the Pittsburgh interiors warm and the wintry exteriors bleak. He simply allows his actors room to breathe, and their subsequent work gives added impetus to the old argument that there should be an Oscar for ensemble performance.
A never-better Michael Douglas shoulders the movie as Grady Tripp, the dope-smoking literary professor hamstrung by a never-ending second novel. Douglas invests his academic with a dishevelled grace, rolling with the punches as his life slowly unravels over the course of a weekend. The aptly-named Tripp both stumbles and coasts along in an intoxicated haze, raising a wry eyebrow at the quixotic humanity he witnesses. Like almost everything in this elegantly understated movie, Douglas underplays, assaying a marijuana-mellow take on Falling Down’s D-Fens.
Elsewhere, Tobey Maguire is at his glassy-eyed, inscrutable best as troubled teen James Leer, while old-stagers Frances McDormand and Rip Torn eat up their limited screen time as Tripp’s on-off love interest and literary adversary respectively. Only the requisitely cute Katie Holmes appears out of her depth, as alluring student Hannah Green. A pre-jail Robert Downey Jr., meanwhile, proves once and for all that Hollywood needs him this side of the bars. Indeed, it says much about the generosity of Douglas’ performance that Downey’s hugely entertaining literary agent is allowed to steal every scene.
Wonder Boys is not perfect; some sections drag, some characters refuse to come into focus. But it is a brave, important work which feels both timeless and contemporary. Of course, the point was so lost on the American public that the studio are planning a post-award, glory re-release before the awards season even starts. Don’t make the same mistake here - catch this minor masterpiece the first time around.
Wonderful. This is not a quick hit, bad aftertaste froth - rather it is a rich, complex broth which steams slowly into your senses and leaves you with a warm, lasting glow.