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The Wonder Boys

Review by David Luty
Posted 10 March 2000

Directed by Curtis Hanson 

Michael Douglas, 
Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand,
  Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes,
  Richard Thomas, Rip Torn , 
Philip Bosco, Jane Adams , 
Richard Knox, and Michael Cavaias

Written by
Steve Kloves,
based on the novel by
Michael Chabon

In the late eighties, while writing their tangled gangster epic Millerís Crossing, Joel and Ethan Coen hit that brick wall most every writer collides with from time to time. They contracted a nasty case of writerís block. But while their malady was common, their solution was something else altogether. Seeking an escape from their creative torpor, they decided to actually write about the writerís block. The result was Barton Fink, a whacked-out fantasia that took the condition as a starting off point for an absurdist examination of some of human natureís darker recesses. Half a decade later, we have Michael Chabon. After making literary waves with his debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he found himself in a pickle while delivering his follow-up. He couldnít stop writing it. He had writerís block too, but it was a block of a different sort. He hadnít run out of ideas. He had run out of the ability to filter a flood of ideas through any sort of unifying principle. He lost his direction, and so, like the Coens, he put the magnum opus aside and began writing a story about his block, which brings us to Wonder Boys, published in 1995 and now presented as a screen adaptation.

The writerís block a clef conceived by Chabon is even more autobiographical than Barton Fink. Wonder Boys is about aimlessness quite literally, with its lead character, Grady Tripp, experiencing precisely that which haunted Chabon professionally, as well as some emotional gymnastics symptomatic of the same problem. Tripp, played with a nice lived-in ease by Michael Douglas in the movie, cannot seem to finish his second novel. A writing professor at a prestigious Pennsylvania university, this now middle-aged shaggy dog of a man is trying to live up to the promise he delivered during his wonder years, only seven years ago. But heís wallowing in the inability to choose, whether it be a thematic through-line for his novel, or the path of his own love life. After having been married to a string of pretty younger women, all of whom have eventually left him, heís presented with the possibility that the woman for him may just be one his own age, school chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), with whom heís been having a long-standing affair. On the same day, Grady is dumped by his latest trophy wife, visited by his bisexual editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey, Jr.) who is desperately looking for a finished novel, and walloped with a potentially life-changing piece of news from Sara. With so much weighing down on him, itís no wonder Grady decides to focus the lionís share of his attention on something else, on the plight of one James Leer (Tobey Maguire), the quiet, mysterious student who lurks around with a gun, writes like the dickens, and faintly reminds Grady of the man he once was.

Gradyís attention darts around throughout Wonder Boys, and that lack of focus becomes the storyís guiding principle. This is a case of form following function, and that isnít always a good thing. The last thing a writer wants to do to convey boredom in his characters is to make their experiences boring to the audience, and almost the same can be said when the chief attribute in question is aimlessness. Gradyís farcical two-day trip into and out of trouble around his Pittsburgh haunting grounds involves a dead dog, heaps of marijuana, more than a couple kooky characters, and the black satin jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe during her wedding to Joe DiMaggio. And the overriding impression this kitchen-sink approach conveys is that the story isnít quite sure where itís heading (which is something considerably different from a confident story that leaves the audience unsure of where they are heading). There just isnít much momentum carrying Wonder Boys from scene to scene. No matter how strong and confident the acting, photography, and music choices, and the movie is exceptional in all those categories, thatís a very high hurdle to leap. Wonder Boys may have worked better as a novel, which can be revisited again and again at oneís leisure, but as a movie, which lends itself more to a single, continuous experience, lack of forward movement is particularly painful (though I did have much the same trouble wading through the book).

Within the movieís most successful area, the relationship between Tripp and James, whom Maguire plays with a gentle, magnetic stillness, lies the entire problem in microcosm. James has a dark personality, mirrored in his short stories, that hints at a troubled existence. He also worships his professor Tripp, and during the course of the story attempts to woo the attention of his mentor with stories of the severe life he now leads. The running gag of the relationship is that James is a natural born storyteller, even when it comes to his own life. Thatís a perfectly cute little idea, but all that tale-telling costs the movie when it comes time to give James an emotional rescue of sorts. James spends so much time weaving tall tales about himself he prevents the story from pinning him down. He remains an empty shell of a character, a story conceit rather than a human being. That may have worked fine in a straight farce, but Wonder Boys does have real emotional aspirations. By the time Grady reaches his own place of personal peace, you may wonder what all the busy to and fro had to do with it in the first place. Itís all much ado about not much, even though director Curtis Hanson does his best to keep things moving at an entertaining clip. The movie is frequently funny, sometimes touching, and more than a little non-involving.

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