** 1/2 Stars
Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Writing credits: Michael Chabon (novel), Steven Kloves
Paramount * 112 minutes
Grady Tripp, the protagonist of Curtis Hanson's new film WONDER BOYS, is an acclaimed novelist who can't seem to finish his next novel. He's on page 1261 and still can't end it. At one point, a student tells him that she has learned from him that a writer has to make choices, and that the novel is so long because he hasn't made those choices.
In Hanson's last film, the terrific L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, the just-over-two-hour running time housed a tightly-paced, every-minute-counts picture. The first ninety minutes of WONDER BOYS reveal a wonderfully rich, beautifully-written glimpse of quirky characters who could easily have walked out of the mind of John Irving. But neither Hanson nor screenwriter Steven Kloves learned from Grady Tripp, and a flaccid last half hour dampens an otherwise fine dark comedy tinged with pathos.
Grady Tripp is weary. An acclaimed novelist who fears he has only one novel in him, he smokes pot all day and sleepwalks through teaching a group of dour, young, aspiring novelists, most of whom have no talent, how to write. One of said students, James Leer, is even more dour than most but he has writing talent.
Grady's editor, Terence Crabtree (obviously inspired by Simon & Schuster icon Michael Korda and portrayed brilliantly by Robert Downey, Jr.) is on the way out unless he can publish another winner preferably another Grady Tripp winner. But after 1261 pages, Grady is nowhere near ready to have his editor look at the manuscript. Combined with his affair with the university chancellor, who happens to be married to his boss and is now pregnant not by her husband, Grady is having just one helluva day. This day is capped off by the murder of the chancellor's dog by the aforementioned James Leer, and a series of "buddy flick/road movie" adventures involving the dog's corpse, a jacket owned by Marilyn Monroe, Leer's backpack, and Grady's script.
WONDER BOYS is most notable for Michael Douglas' willingness to portray a disillusioned middle-aged sleazebag, instead of the testosterone-crazed sleazebags he usually prefers. Wearing a defeated expression, a few days' stubble, and a tattered pink chenille bathrobe, unable to maintain a marriage, unable even to practice responsible sex with his mistress, he's the living embodiment of what happens to adolescents who never grow up. His wry comic delivery reminds us of the kind of actor Douglas can be when he's merely playing a cynical white man instead of an angry one.
The film boasts strong supporting performances as well. Tobey Maguire, who has made quite a splash in recent months between this film and THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, makes the tale-spinning, perhaps unhinged, certainly sexually confused James Leer a fascinating character. Maguire reminds me of one of those people who speak so softly that you have to always lean towards them to hear and what they say is always worth hearing. He wisely chooses characters in the "still waters run deep" category, and always deftly underplays them, so that the viewer always focuses in his characters to see what makes them tick.
Setting off the more subtle performances of the two leads is Robert Downey, Jr. as Terence Chapman, the hedonistic gay editor. Downey is making a second career of poking fun at entertainment industry archetypes, and watching his mournful-yet-gleeful face, which reflects every bit of the real-life hell through which he's put himself, merely serves to point out what a tremendous talent he's wasted over the years. He made the most of his few scene-stealing minutes in last year's BOWFINGER, and does no less here.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of WONDER BOYS is its treatment of sex. Most films that deal with homosexuality feel compelled to either play it for laughs or shock value, they turn their gay characters into eunuchs, or all of the above. Here, the sexual relationship between the young James Leer and the predatory Terence Chapman is merely part of the plot. It doesn't scream in flashing neon: "Look! Gay sex!" Also of note is the fact that the romantic interest of the man in midlife crisis (especially interesting considering Mr. Douglas' real-life Significant Other) is Frances McDormand, who is clearly over forty and does NOT look like an ex-model à la Rene Russo. Grady Tripp spurns the advances of his starstruck just-past-jailbait student/boarder (Katie Holmes of Dawson's Creek fame) and even his never-shown young wife, in favor of McDormand's no-nonsense plainness. This is a development that should be cheered.
Less auspicious, however, is the idea that all one has to do to get one's groove back is to break up someone else's marriage, even if the spouse in said marriage IS portrayed by John-Boy Walton (Richard Thomas). I know I would feel somewhat less-than-wonderful about trusting someone who'd stray from a marriage, even to be with me.
At one point about an hour and a half into the film, a turning point takes place in the story that would have been a beautifully ironic way to end the tale. But Hanson refuses to make the necessary choices, and ends up with an overly long quasi-comedy that ultimately runs out of gas.
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