Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Review: Wonder Boys

*ing: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Robert Downey Jr.
Directed by: Curtis Hanson

Grady Tripp, the narrator and central character in Wonder Boys smokes a lot. Not normal cigarettes - he smokes joints laced with weed. This is an important observation, I think, because watching this movie gives you the feeling that the scriptwriter was high when he wrote it. It moves slowly, everything seems out of joint, things get wierd before they get normal, and then they get wierd again... The wierdest thing is, despite all this, it makes a helluva lot of sense.

You see, while the specific events seem wacky (and I do not use that adjective lightly here), the characters aren't. They are consistent (even when they are inconsistent), often articulate, and we get a clear sense of where they're headed even if they don't. In fact, the slightly off-kilter tone only adds to the effect, rather than confusing things.

The movie chronicles the happenings in the life of Grady Tripp, a rather dowdy-looking professor of English at a snow-covered campus, over the span of a three day literary event. When the movie begins, Tripp is having a rather bad day. His wife Emily has just left him. His editor Terry Crabtree is due to arrive that evening, and is bound to ask about the book he's been woking on for the past seven years. (His earlier book, a critical success titled The Arsonist's Daughter, made both their reputations. The way this one is turning out, it might break them.)

It gets worse: Sara Gaskell, the chancellor of his university and the wife of his department's head, also the woman with whom he has been having an affair for a while now, tells him that she is pregnant. And one of his students, a delectable young thing named Hannah Green who also rents a room in his house, has a major crush on him and would very likely jump his bones the first chance she gets.

And then there's James Leer, his most brilliant and most difficult student, in whom Grady probably sees himself as well as a chance to guide someone to greatness. Leer isn't easy to deal with - he seems aloof, doesn't communicate half as well as his stories probably do, and is a compulsive liar to boot. When Tripp spies Leer standing outside in the snow near the Gaskells' home where a party is in progress, he takes him in to show him a prized piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that Walter Gaskell keeps in a safe in his bedroom.

Why does he do that? I think it is because he is sure Leer would react emotionally to it, and he wants to see that. Then the big event happens. The Gaskells' blind dog Poe, which doesn't like Tripp much, decides to take a chunk off his leg for dinner. And Leer, seeing his professor struggling with the dog, shoots it with an antique gun he carries around.

This is clearly the point where a lesser movie would have turned into a fast-paced screwball outing, with professor and student desperately trying to hide the dead dog, and complicating matters further in the process. One of the pleasures of Wonder Boys is that it neatly sidesteps that route. What happens next isn't important, not from a plot point of view anyway. The movie is more interested in its characters, and so was I.

Every performance in this movie is a gem. Michael Douglas, who has made a career out of being suave and sexy, manages to look so unkempt that it seems like an achievement in itself. Watching him potter around in a pink housegown that probably belongs to his wife is nearly as funny as watching Charlton Heston play a Mexican in (the otherwise brilliant) Touch of Evil.

One of the important characteristics of Grady Tripp is that his cynicism, while evident to those around him, has not gotten the better of his amusement or his desire to be a good teacher. Bringing that out takes effort, and Douglas shows a willingness to go the distance. His is the central performance in the movie, and he succeeds in evoking our sympathy and our amusement at the same time.

Robert Downey Jr. and Frances McDormand have particular roles that require them to display an understanding of Tripp that goes well beneath the surface. McDormand's Sara Gaskell clearly loves Tripp, but has also pegged him exactly right, as a man who has lost the will to take initiative - that makes for an interesting dynamic. And Crabtree - well, Crabtree is something else. Intelligent, articulate, with an eye for a good book, and gay to boot. Robert Downey Jr. conveys his preferences in the plumbing department in such a manner that, it seems analogous to someone preferring Steinbeck over Hemingway - a matter of personal taste, not a lifestyle choice.

There is an especially nice moment in a restaurant when Tripp and Crabtree are sitting together and creating a character out of thin air, on the basis of a stranger they see sitting across them. There is both creativity and a parody of popular literature mixed into the description they come up with, but the best part of the scene for me was the easy timing. Hearing them speak in overlapping sentences, anticipating each other's thoughts, was a wonderful experience.

Of the younger cast, Katie Holmes as Hannah Green has the easier job. Given the fact that she has a crush on Tripp, she could've easily become a plot device, but she manages to make herself a little more than that. This is a good performance - not a great or a noteworthy one, but the sort of supporting performance that unobtrusively fills in the gaps.

And Tobey Maguire... ah, the pleasure of watching him play James Leer! His is one of the toughest characters in the movie. He's enormously talented, but he's also enormously moody. He's a congenital liar, but he also manages to tug at Tripp's heartstrings with moments of touching candor. And to top it all, he has a sense of humor that elevates the movie. Tobey Maguire is perfect for the part, with his boyish looks and a lopsided grin that makes you feel like there's a lot more to the joke than what he's just told you. While Douglas' performance is the one that anchors the movie, his is the one that enlivens it.

Director Curtis Hanson, whose previous venture, L. A. Confidential had people salivating for his next venture, has chosen to make a totally different movie, and succeeded admirably. He keeps the proceedings going at exactly the right pace (which, for the kind of screwball activity that goes on, is a little slower than usual), but doesn't allow any slack. He populates the cast with a bunch of wonderful actors who are obviously in love with the project, and comes up with a sweet ensemble comedy that manages to make us smile more often than most of the scatologically-obsessed, juvenile teen comedy trash products put together manage to do.

In its own offbeat, distracted, drug-addled manner, this movie manages to say more about writing and writers than most other movies that tread the same path. Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester, for instance, was also about an older writer grooming a younger one, but had far less to say, and was far more interested in sticking to genre conventions. That one was a product, not a movie. This one is populated with real people who have something to say, and say it beautifully.

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