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Wonder Boys

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Wonder Boys

Starring: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire
Director: Curtis Hanson
Rated: R
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: February 2000
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes, Richard Thomas, Rip Torn

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

I'm a lifelong New Yorker, but only by the force of circumstance. Oh, New York is a fine place to spend your life, probably the world's most exciting city. But I had other things in mind, at least from the time I began college studies in a small Massachusetts town. The campus looked exquisite in the winter, and just outside, the sidewalks featured traffic lights that pedestrians could actually control by pushing a button. Many of the teachers lived on a long, winding street called Professors' Row: this is where I would spend my career, pipe in mouth, leather patches on my sleeve, a golden Labrador Retriever to put me through my paces when I wasn't counseling students or grading papers or attending the many parties thrown by the deans and by colleagues. This was not to be, however, but now, decades later as I observe Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) on the screen in virtually every scene for nearly two hours I realize that the pleasures and sorrows of life are not geographical but within. As sketched in a shaggy-dog novel by Michael Chabon, adapted for the screen by Steve Kloves and directed by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential"), Tripp is the college instructor who (for all we know) I could have become. Not the guy who is absolutely at ease with himself and his calling but one who gets himself into situations that evoke both humor and pathos, Tripp is a 50-ish guide to students in his advanced writing seminar whose mid-life crisis comes to a head on one agitated, winter weekend in Pittsburgh.

Tripp is observed in Chabon's reasonably short novel with dry humor and sly wit as a man who--like so many other writers (Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer)--is going downhill, though in his case his decline is not only a professional one. Having scored an award from PEN just seven years earlier, he has not published another work. As he is on the 2,000th-odd page of a humongous piece of fiction, another scribe on campus nicknamed Q (Rip Torn) has knocked out yet another book, as he has been doing regularly every 18 months. Why the writer's block? Something is happening psychologically to trip him up. He has regular fits, sometimes even falling on the floor in a faint. Marijuana is his crutch and when he pops codeine pills after being bitten around the ankle by a big blind dog, we suspect he uses them for other than medicinal purposes as well.

Hanson's film is not about the profession of writing, however, but about the relationships of a wonder boy, a guy who will prove that you're never too old to grow up. His epiphanies occur during a week that publishers are on campus to look at and perhaps buy some of the output of both faculty and students and, in fact, Tripp's own publisher, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) has joined him and has also met with a suicidal, compulsive liar who is in Tripp's class. The depressive student, James Teer, is played with awesome veracity by the highly talented Tobey Maguire ("The Cider House Rules"), this time as a young man who is the professor's most promising student and as the publisher's promising sexual attachment for the weekend.

"Wonder Boys," takes place during the time that its principal character is in a funk because his wife had just left him, a student with a crush (Hannah, played by Katie Holmes) is coming on to him, and he is looking to strengthen his bond with his mistress, Sara (Frances McDormand), who is the chancellor and the wife of the English chairman. Events which are to shake him out of his long-term funk occur in just a few days: 1) Young James has shot the English chairman's blind dog, allegedly to defend the professor who has been attacked by the big hound; 2) Sara has announced that she is pregnant from Tripp and is determined to make a decision about the baby within her; 3) James has stolen Marilyn Monroe's coat, which she had worn to her wedding with Joe D.

Some incidents are wacky, some are serious. The movie's most notable attribute is its pacing. Curtis Hanson, known for his ability to move around a multiplicity of characters in his "L.A. Confidential," refuses to appeal to a potentially broad audience. He keeps the plot moving along at his own lingering velocity, thereby avoiding making a Buston-Keaton style picture out of the zaniness. He hints at a possible affair between student Hannah and Tripp but keeps the two apart throughout. He has us wondering how Tripp's affiliation with Sara will turn out, given the humorlessness of Sara's husband who is Tripp's overseer.

All this is commendable. Unfortunately what should have been a story well told to an appreciative audience of indie- lovers who also adore their indies to be framed with a commercial-sized budget is simply murky, torpid, and confused. The chemistry between the chancellor and the professor is missing: we miss any feeling that something is at stake. Tripp's life has been on hold for so long that he appears to have lost real desire to make changes, to do something for himself that could alter his listlessness. Yet the film is cast with awe-inspiring faculty. Douglas, wonderful as the overly calm executive in "The Game" who is challenged by life-threatening risk; super as a the high- powered broker in "Wall Street" who knows that greed is good; is simply majestic this time in his first role with real comedic undertones. With long hair, scruffy beard, and overbearing glasses, he meanders through his role with absolute sincerity. He is a man with whom many others his age could identify. Tobey Maguire is the metaphoric young and bright depressive whose stories might make others in his class want to kill themselves and he too engages in activities on that fateful weekend that might make genuine corrections in his life. Robert Downey Jr. saves an otherwise lackadaisical film with his unique brand of wily, comic acting in a film that looks more like an notion than a well thought-out comedy-drama.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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