Wonder Boys directed by Curtis Hanson Shaggy, funny, perverse and overflowing with life, Wonder Boys is a rare Hollywood film based on a respected literary source that gets just about everything right. It preserves the essence of Michael Chabon's book, which is about the half-demented, half-pathetic goings-on at a college literary festival in Pittsburgh. More importantly, considering that most viewers haven't read the novel and won't care to, it stands on its own two feet as an entertaining and unexpectedly rich comedy.
A superb and unfussy actor who's the equal of his old man, Douglas has spent the last decade in a weird typecasting groove, riding the Hollywood money train, playing snarling go-getters and metaphor-encrusted symbols of persecuted white manhood. While some of the films have been good (especially Wall Street, War of the Roses and The Game), others likable but slight (The American President), most have been mediocre to awful. But all were wreathed in a sense of eluded possibilities. He's likable (who else could make the selfish bastard heroes of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct sympathetic?) and has a gift for underplayed sarcastic humor that few films have properly exploited. As Oliver Stone and a handful of other directors demonstrated, there's always been much, much more to this actor than he was able (or willing) to demonstrate. He was a character actor posing?convincingly?as a star.
At long last, playing Grady Tripp, Douglas sloughs off the carapace of matinee idol glamour and gives a character-actor-as-leading-man performance, comparable to the very best of Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges. He lets his 55 years show: his long hair is dry and fine and flecked with silver; his gut is clearly visible; his throat is saggy and unshaven; his face is lined and slightly dry, as if liver spots were right around the corner.
I don't know how much of his realistic appearance is due to makeup (or a dearth of makeup), but it doesn't matter; the character of Tripp resists any attempts at glorification. He's a pretty sad, marginal figure?a man coasting on the fumes of past glories, and who thinks the rest of the world doesn't realize how bad off he is. His wife has left him. His third novel, unfinished after several years of toil, is clocking in at more than 2600 pages, and Tripp has no idea how to end the thing. His mistress, university chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), is pregnant with his child. His star creative writing pupil, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), is a mysterious and possibly dangerous person. His editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), is in Pittsburgh for the literary festival, known as Word Fest, and he expects delivery of Tripp's long-delayed third novel. Though he brings along an impossibly tall transvestite named Miss Sloviak (Michael Cavadias) whom he met on the plane coming in, he's a charming bisexual smoothie with a roving eye.
But that's more than you need to know about the plot; in fact, almost any amount of description of this film is more than you need to know. One of the delights of Wonder Boys, novel and movie, is its gleeful piling on of incident after incident, twist after twist. Because we're with Tripp most of the time, seeing the world as processed by his slow-moving, introspective, druggy mind, we don't think of the story as being densely plotted. But it is: Tripp is always fretting over two or three potentially catastrophic events, from a waylaid dog to a stolen manuscript to a boosted car to his own bloody, wounded ankle (the result of a mishap I wouldn't dream of giving away here). It's like he's spending the whole movie running to catch a train that just left the station?or, more accurately in Tripp's case, jogging along amiably while trying to light a joint at the same time. There have been a lot of novels in recent years about the college literary scene?inevitable, considering how much of the so-called serious literary establishment has retreated to the hothouse environment of the university?but few have succeeded both as an evocation of a peculiar subculture and as a stand-alone, knockabout comedy. This one has it both ways, and the less you know going in, the more you'll enjoy yourself.
Wonder Boys is about as odd as a Hollywood movie can get and still be a Hollywood movie. Much of the time, it resembles a superb independent film, or perhaps a fine French comedy from the 70s or 80s. It's funky and literate in a stealthy way, dropping casual references to the PEN awards, Gene Tierney, Ernest Hemingway and the takeover of the book business by monolithic entertainment conglomerates, and never troubling itself over whether the audience will know or care what the characters are talking about. "Books," Tripp tells James Leer late in the film. "They don't mean anything to anybody. Not anymore." What sells the line?keeps it from self-pity, makes it emotionally resonant to a general audience?is that the film presumes no knowledge of publishing, writing or the university world, as, say, a Woody Allen film might. Instead, it assumes that we will feel as sad about declining literacy as Tripp does because he's the hero, because the actor has made him worthy of interest and because the film has done a good job of explaining what Tripp cares about and how much it means to him. It's a strategy that would work equally well if Tripp were a burned-out doctor or hockey player or Hollywood actor.
The characters in Wonder Boys have an alertness, an intelligence, a self-aware joie de vivre, but the actors don't play to the back rows. Though the performers, particularly Douglas and Downey, give their juicier lines an unexpected and delightful twist here and there (a strategic pause, a weird emphasis), they're never winking at the audience; they're expressing the self-awareness of these too-smart-by-half characters, but not having a laugh at their expense. Nearly every character in the film could have been boiled down to caricature, yet even the minor ones have a sideways authenticity. They don't exist to be amusing; they exist, and we're permitted to watch and be amused?a fine but crucial distinction.
Vernon Hardapple (Richard Knox), a black barfly with an old car fetish and a 'do that Tripp says could qualify him to be the spokesman for the James Brown Hair Club for Men, might have been a stereotypical weird black man in somebody else's movie. Wonder Boys insists on his uniqueness and humanity from the get-go and, in a fine sequence near the end, allows him to be righteous and unexpectedly tender. Frances McDormand might have been encouraged to lampoon the character of the university chancellor and Tripp's secret lover (imagine how she'd be treated in a Coen brothers movie), but instead she comes off as a fully realized professional woman whose furtive personal life has pushed her into a really bad corner. Burly, satyr-browed Rip Torn floats through the film as a legendary Mailer-esque blowhard writer known only as Q. His youthful gusto, arty pomposity and interest in nubile young female writers are elements on a laundry list of cliches, ticked off one after the other. Yet Torn is permitted to carve out a great character in just a few scenes; he lets us see the intelligence, justified pride and fear of mortality that lurk beneath the facade.
What a triumph for Hanson. This filmmaker spent a decade and a half doing second-tier Hollywood suspense pictures like The Bedroom Window, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. With L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, he moves into the upper ranks of American filmmakers. The subtlety of the latter, contrasted with the brazen stylishness, sensuality and brutality of the former, is instant proof of his versatility. Yet no matter how terrific he becomes, I suspect Hanson will never be given proper credit for his excellence, because he isn't one of those directors whose style says, "Look, ma?I'm directing!" His style achieves precise effects while remaining mostly invisible. Early in the movie, if you listen closely, you'll hear a couple of anonymous guests at a Word Fest party debating the merits of an unnamed film. "How did you feel about the adaptation?" one asks. "I felt it was more literary than cinematic," the other replies. This is Hanson and Kloves' sly way of tossing down the gauntlet; it's like they're daring critics to see the cinematic qualities in what is intentionally a pretty subdued black comedy about a subculture few Americans care about.
This might be the wrong approach. Most critics?indeed, most audience members?will automatically assume a film set against a world of literate people and book worship is literary rather than cinematic. They'd be wrong. With the exception of Tripp's droll, sparing voiceover, Kloves and Hanson find marvelously cinematic ways to convey information. Look at the way Hanson and his cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, photograph the dirty whiteness of the snow on residential Pittsburgh streets, and the wintry rain and sleet that occasionally pelt the beleaguered characters; they've created the first great elemental comedy since Withnail and I.
We don't realize how long Tripp's book is until we see him working on it, putting a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter, typing "261" at the top of the pages, pausing for a second, then adding another "1." Drinking in a bar with Crabtree and Leer, Tripp looks up to see a waitress (Jane Adams) asking to take their orders; the first thing we see is her name tag, "OOLA," then the camera moves up for a close shot of her slender face. It's only when she moves back, away from the camera to medium distance, drink tray held aloft, that we can see her massively pregnant belly. Douglas' expression in this scene, as elsewhere, is just right; Tripp registers that the image of the pregnant Oola is significant, yet his face suggests he hasn't quite connected it to his own experience.
Is there a place in Hollywood for this kind of movie? I tend to doubt it. Wonder Boys is packed with great actors, but it's not a "package." There are imperfections; it's perhaps 10 minutes too long, and the underscore is a shade too winsome and wacky, like the music in Midnight Run. But scene for scene, it's a sublime achievement.
Framed Damn you all to hell! The Screening Room has a couple of interesting items on its schedule this week, and they connect with each other in unlikely ways. Homo Sapiens 1900, a documentary by Peter Cohen about the history of eugenics and the political movements that have sprung up around it, plays March 3-9. It's a fascinating (if occasionally academic) film with contemporary resonance, given the explosive growth of hate groups and racial and ethnic wars (and an opposing trend, intermarriage).
On the fantastic side, Feb. 25-March 2 brings a big-screen repeat of all five Planet of the Apes movies, which were greeted as oddball blockbusters on first release and then, as the series drew onward into the 70s and the production values dipped, as an early example of Hollywood's addiction to high-profile genre sequels. The characterization is unfair; in fact, the passage of time has been pretty good to the Apes films. It's now possible to enjoy them as legitimate (if muddled) critiques of American society and politics at the time, particularly clashes over race relations, Vietnam, nukes and revolutionary chic. Over the course of the series, it relocated identity from the white American hero (Charlton Heston and, later, James Franciscus) to the apes; this was an unusual move, and one that grants the films a racial dimension. If the tone of the films weren't so seriously satirical and politically urgent, they could be read as racist. Instead, they're exciting, intelligent and valuable?a relic from a time when crowd-pleasing, bankable science fiction didn't have to be moronic.
Mack Daddy. Stephen Holden's review of Pitch Black has an intriguingly Elvis Mitchellesque lead, complete with eye-popping cartoon metaphor. But Holden hilariously destroys it by trying to explain it further down. "With his elephantine glare and trapezius muscles that could support a Mack truck," the review begins, "Vin Diesel, who appears in two films opening today, is definitely the flavor of the movie weekend." Later, he qualifies it: "In the real world, of course, no one's trapezius muscles could actually handle a Mack truck. But the combination of Mr. Diesel's massive shoulders and good-natured sarcasm go a long way toward carrying 'Pitch Black' above the musclebound fray."
Thanks for explaining that, guy; the next time I saw Vin, I was gonna ask him to help move a piano.