Wednesday February 23, 2000
Distracted and dissipated dope-smoking man of letters Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) has known bad days. Yes, he admits as "Wonder Boys" opens, his wife has left him that very morning, "but wives had left me before." Yes, WordFest, the three-day literary event hosted by his university that this flailing novelist and writing professor genially scorns, will start that evening, but Tripp has always survived that as well. So what's the big deal?
What Tripp doesn't know is that the wasted weekend about to begin is going to be the worst (and that covers a lot of territory) he's ever experienced, so chaotic that the cataclysmic death of a dog at its beginning will seem positively benign before things are over. Tripp's precariously balanced life, always a shambles, is about to collapse with a slow-motion vengeance.
Tripp won't be taking this amiably disastrous trip into the dark night of his soul alone. Along for the ride, among others, are his predatory, satyr-like, gay New York editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.); Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), his university's married chancellor as well as his mistress; James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a precocious, albeit death-obsessed, student; and Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), an equally gifted though considerably more attractive classmate who rents a room in Tripp's rambling house.
What makes Tripp's journey, and "Wonder Boys" as a whole, the pleasure it is isn't the destination so much as the way it's conveyed and experienced. Fastidiously directed by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") and written by Steve Kloves ("The Fabulous Baker Boys") with an eye to preserving the rueful comic sensibility of Michael Chabon's splendid novel, this smart, literate film is especially noticeable for its generosity of spirit, for the sympathetic compassion and warmth it displays toward people who don't always receive it, on screen or off.
Though Chabon's book got exceptional reviews, its picaresque structure and richness of detail kept it from being automatic film material. But producer Scott Rudin believed in the project, and screenwriter Kloves showed why he's so well-regarded in Hollywood despite a slender output (this is his fourth film in 16 years) by expertly paring down the novel. Fans of Chabon's writing will find things missing, from a boa constrictor to character nuances, but what's more significant is Kloves' ability to capture the antic spirit of the proceedings as well as the book's droll sense of humor, which mixes restrained screwball antics with deft verbal repartee.
Hanson not only understands the jokes, he knows how to place them in the context of a handsomely mounted, graceful production that is well-played across the board. Though earlier films like "River Wild" and "L.A. Confidential" may seem miles from this, they share Hanson's thorough-going classicism, his ability to give every on-screen element just the weight it deserves. What was new about "L.A. Confidential" is a quality that has carried over to this film: Hanson's increased confidence, his belief that he can bring off pretty much whatever he chooses.
A film buff before he was a director, Hanson convinced veteran editor Dede Allen to add her gift for narrative flow to "Wonder Boys," and retained his exceptional "L.A. Confidential" cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, who makes the film's Pittsburgh settings gleam like an eccentric urban fantasy land. Hanson also hasorchestrated uniformly excellent performances from his cast, from Oscar winners like McDormand, ambivalent and conflicted as a mistress at a moment of truth, to youngsters like "Dawson's Creek's" Holmes, just right as the beauty with kind of a crush on the old man.
The performance that anchorsthe film and makes everything possible is Douglas' as Tripp, trying to even remember, let alone act on, what being responsible means after a lifetime spent as the boy who wouldn't grow up. Though the film's ad poster brings Elmer Fudd to mind, his Grady Tripp is rather a once-formidable man gone distressingly to seed, a weary Lothario who now stumbles around in a wool cap and his wife's bathrobe like one of the more dissolute elves in Santa's workshop. The been-there Douglas, reviving the offhanded comic moves that made "Romancing the Stone" so successful, has exactly the look and presence to make that characterization believable.
Tripp is especially worried about the upcoming WordFest weekend because of the appearance of editor Crabtree, who, desperate for a success, wants to take a look at the manuscript of an enormous, unwieldy novel Tripp has been working on for the seven years since its highly successful predecessor. The problem is that Tripp, at page 2611 and counting, is the opposite of blocked: He's got Sorcerer's Apprentice Syndrome; he can't stop or even prune the flow of words no matter how much he wants to.
Crabtree, the tempter incarnate (played by Downey with engaging flair), lives up to Tripp's worst fears by getting off the plane from New York with a treetop-tall transvestite and tuba player named Miss Sloviak (newcomer Michael Cavadias). The trio head for a party at the home of the chancellor, who catches a hint of Miss Sloviak's perfume and says with weary resignation, "I wear the same scent as a transvestite."
Outside, Tripp runs into Leer, a novel-writing student his professor views as a tricky combination of rival, protege and unstable surrogate son. Always morose and unhealthily focused on celebrity necrology, Leer (Maguire, in perhaps his best and most controlled performance) is especially morbid this evening, and Tripp thinks he knows just how to distract him.
For the chancellor's husband, a demon Yankee fan and memorabilia collector who sees Joe DiMaggio as an all-inclusive metaphor, keeps the fur-trimmed jacket Marilyn Monroe wore to marry the Yankee Clipper in a bedroom safe. Tripp decides to sneak in and give Leer a glimpse of the holy relic, and that's when, fueled by alcohol, ennui and illicit drugs, things start to seriously unwind for wonder boys past, present and future.
It turns out that one of Leer's most unnerving traits is that he's a compulsive fabulist, apparently unable or unwilling to tell the plain truth, and one of "Wonder Boys' " themes is the exploration of what it means to be a writer, a teller of tales and creator of worlds. It's all part of the heady and sophisticated experience the script characterizes as "one nutty ride," and for once we're glad to have been invited along.
Wonder Boys, 2000. R, for language and drug content. A Mutual Film Company presentation, released by Paramount. Director Curtis Hanson. Producers Scott Rudin, Curtis Hanson. Executive producers Adam Schroeder, Ned Dowd. Screenplay Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editor Dede Allen. Costumes Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Music Christopher Young. Production design Jeannine Oppewall. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. Dolores Heredia as Esperanza. Fernando Torre Lapham as Padre Salvador. Demian Bichir as Cacomixtle. Alberto Estrella as Angel. Eric Schaeffer as Wirey Spindell. Eric Mabius as Wirey at 17. Callie Thorne as Tabatha. Samantha Buck as Samantha. Sophia-Adella Hernandez as Belle Alvarado. Eduardo Yan~ez as Mario Rodriguez. Tony Plana as Chuck Alvarado. William McNamara as Michael DeMarco. Maria Conchita Alonso as Carmen Alvarado. Paul Winfield as Ron Regent. Liam Neeson as Charlie. Oliver Platt as Fulvio Nesstra. Jose Zuniga as Fidel Vaillar. Michael Delorenzo as Estuvio. Andy Lauer as Jason Cane. Richard Schiff as Elliott. Paul Ben-Victor as Howard. Gregg Daniel as Jonathan. Ben Weber as Mark. Sandra Bullock as Judy Tipp. Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott. Courteney Cox Arquette as Gale Weathers. David Arquette as Dewey Riley. Parker Posey as Jennifer Jolie. Bernadette Lafont as Jane. Lucile Saint-Simon as Rita. Clothilde Joano as Jacqueline. Stephane Audran as Ginette. Mark Webber as Hal Brandston. Zena Grey as Natalie Brandston. Chevy Chase as Tom Brandston. Schuyler Fisk as Lane Leonard. Emmanuelle Chriqui as Claire Bonner. Jean Smart as Laura Brandston. Chris Elliott as Snowplowman. Leonardo DiCaprio as Richard. Tilda Swinton as Sal. Virginie Ledoyen as Francoise. Guillaume Canet as Etienne. Robert Carlyle as Daffy. Vin Diesel as Riddick. Radha Mitchell as Fry. Cole Hauser as Johns. Keith David as Imam. Giovanni Ribisi as Seth. Vin Diesel as Chris. Nia Long as Abby. Nicky Katt as Greg. Scott Caan as Richie. Ron Rifkin as Seth's Father. Ben Affleck as Jim Young. Wei Minzhi as Wei Minzhi. Zhang Huike as Zhang Huike. Tian Zhenda as Mayor Tian. Gao Enman as Teacher Gao. Meg Ryan as Eve. Diane Keaton as Georgia. Lisa Kudrow as Maddy. Walther Matthau as Lou. Bruce Willis as Jimmy Tudeski. Matthew Perry as Oz Oseransky. Rosanna Arquette as Sophie. Michael Clarke Duncan as Frankie Figgs. Natasha Henstridge as Cynthia. Amanda Peet as Jill. Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp. Tobey Maguire as James Leer. Frances McDormand as Sara Gaskell. Katie Holmes as Hannah Green. Rip Torn as Q. Robert Downey Jr. as Terry Crabtree.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun