Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Wonder Boys

By Marjorie Baumgarten

FEBRUARY 28, 2000: 

D: Curtis Hanson; with Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Robert Downey Jr., Rip Torn, Richard Thomas. (R, 112 min.)

Wonder Boys is a shaggy-dog story about middle-age makeovers and youthful beginnings, estranged wives and pregnant lovers, unfinished novels and anxious editors, murdered dogs and lost vehicles, and pot-induced hazes and the art of telling stories. With the vast critical success of 1997's L.A. Confidential, the status of director Curtis Hanson also rose exponentially. He became a filmmaker whose next work was keenly anticipated. Now his next movie, Wonder Boys, is here, and it seems less like his previous film than all his other films put together. This comic drama about academicians in Pittsburgh couldn't be further from the noirish period intrigues of L.A. Confidential. Yet if you look at Hanson's career, you'll find a craftsman who's bounced from subject to subject, with little to unite the films stylistically other than their surprising excellence. His recent films have spanned various genres ­ from the psychological drama of Bad Influence to the babysitter thriller, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the action drama of The River Wild, and the period noir police work of L.A. Confidential. Now comes comedy, albeit comedy with a poignant touch. The story follows a weekend in the life of Grady Tripp (Douglas), a college writing professor who hasn't produced a new work in seven years. Events continue to pile up on Grady throughout the weekend, until the three-day period becomes a life-altering experience for this over-the-hill pothead. However, the story's poignant touches prevent the movie from rising to the level of screwball comedy, and its wacky chain of events never quite reach the stoned logic of The Big Lebowski'sshaggy-dog events. Douglas' unkempt and aging Grady makes a fine contrast with the actor's usual character choices ­ shafted white men who choose to fight back. As his protégé pupil, Maguire is all inscrutability, and as his lover (and boss' wife), McDormand is wonderful but suffering from too little to do other than set the plot in motion. But as the decadent book editor Downey is thrillingly electric. Hilarious scenes are counterbalanced with dramatic dialogue that one suspects read better on the printed page than in voiceover narration. (The movie was adapted for the screen by The Fabulous Baker Boys' Steve Kloves from the novel by Michael Chambon.) The movie's view of writers and their work is full of romantic illusions, highlighted by lines such as these: "She was a junkie for the printed word. And I manufactured her drug of choice." Still, when this movie is funny it's really spot-on, and the technical contributions (camerawork by Dante Spinotti, editing by veteran Dede Allen, and a music score that includes a new Bob Dylan song and tunes by John Lennon, Neil Young, and others) are all noteworthy. Wonder Boys is plenty of fun while it lasts, but its aftereffects are mighty fleeting.

3 Stars

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