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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 Walter Frith
3½ stars out of 4

A lot of what plays out in 'Wonder Boys' resembles what happens when you tinker with a jack-in-the-box. Things pop up unexpectedly, and for the film's characters, sometimes in a pleasing manner and sometimes not. The film brings up the stereotype that has followed many writers around their entire lives. The booze, the womanizing, the drugs, and their sometimes whacked out personality that have inspired such great works in the literary field and the whole film is a merry-go-round of hilarious pop culture with redemption as its true message.

Set mostly in Pittsburgh, Michael Douglas gives his best performance in years, probably since his Oscar winning turn for best actor in 1987's 'Wall Street', as a seemingly washed up college professor named Grady Tripp who teaches writing but can't teach himself how to get his own life in order. He carries on an affair with two women from opposite ends of the spectrum. One is with a student named Hannah Green (Katie Holmes) and the other is with the institution's Chancellor, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand).

Plaguing Grady is the fact that he has promised his long time editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) that he would have a book completed for him in time for their next meeting when Terry flies in from New York City. Bothering Grady further is a writer named Quentin "Q" Morewood (Rip Torn), who cranks out a novel every eighteen months which causes Grady to be extremely jealous. One night at a party at the Chancellor's home, Grady comes face to face socially with one of his students named James Leer (Tobey Maguire). James is the deadpan weirdo that most of his class have come to despise. He writes obtuse material that is somehow absorbing, shocking and funny and carries his writer's technique into his real life. He often makes things up, such as the fictional town that he says he's from, as he goes along to tell others about his life and it all seems incredibly plausible, the mark of a successful writer.....I suppose. At the party, James gets into some serious mischief involving a jacket that used to belong to Marilyn Monroe, a vicious blind dog that meets with the discharge from a firearm and the fact that he has dragged his beloved professor through all of it at the same time. The after math of this bizarre social gathering is sort of what makes 'Wonder Boys' the entertaining film that it is. It starts off rather slowly but propels itself like fireworks when it finally gets going.

For the average movie person with upstanding tastes, 'Wonder Boys' is a film that may be hard to focus on. Don't think that the title means all the characters are WONDERful in terms of their upstanding traits. You have to accept its moral abyss in order to enjoy it. The characters are all fractured inside somehow by life's twists and turns. The sex, the downbeat feeling that shows why few smile in this film and the messed up activities at times resemble a frat party and all the while you somehow want to be in on the action which is strangely seductive.

Curtis Hanson, who directed and co-wrote 1997's 'L.A. Confidential', does a complete 180 here in brilliant fashion. The material in 'Wonder Boys' couldn't be more different. 'L.A. Confidential' was a hard boiled, hard nosed and hard edged film about police corruption with zero tolerance for humour while 'Wonder Boys' relies entirely on humour, sometimes the kind that feels like you've hit your funny bone on something hard but with so many wonderful performances on the plate, why leave anything on it. One of the most intriguing scenes has Douglas on the phone with the Chancellor's husband (Richard Thomas), telling him that he's in love with his wife and all the while acting stone faced through it. For reaction purposes, one of the most difficult challenges for an actor is to do a successful phone conversation as you have to act like you'll never know what you'll hear and Douglas pulls it off superbly.

More importantly than that is the performance of Tobey Maguire. He upstages Douglas at many points and to do this to an Oscar winning actor, is a marvel. It's probably the best upstaging from a young performer on a veteran since Juliette Lewis did it many times to Robert De Niro in 1991's 'Cape Fear'. This is Maguire's breakthrough role as performances in 'Pleasantville' and 'The Cider House Rules' have sort of warmed him up for his first truly spectacular role and this is it. He and Douglas could be Oscar bound next year for these truly human performances of candour and sharp wit. 'Wonder Boys' is hardly conventional film making. It's genius layered with sensational off beat characters who are the real wonder!

Copyright 2000 Walter Frith

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