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Memphis Flyer Where the Boys Are

Michael Douglas sparks a witty 'Wonder Boys.'

By Bruce Van Wyngarden

MARCH 6, 2000:  A movie that's set in a college English department isn't exactly high concept, at least not by Hollywood standards. The potential for gunplay, car crashes, and sex would seem to be inherently limited. What you'd expect to get from the movie industry is a character-driven melodrama, something Merchant-Ivory-ish, a dark academic film that would have a token run at the multiplex before heading straight to video.

You certainly wouldn't expect to get the small, quirky, comic marvel that is Wonder Boys, which has a little gunplay, a little sex, the funniest car crash I've seen in a very long time, and characters you will not soon forget.

Based on Michael Chabon's novel of the same name, Wonder Boys takes place over a long weekend at a university in Pittsburgh. It's the school's annual Wordfest, which brings members of the outside literary world -- writers, agents, editors -- onto campus for readings, lectures, and socializing. Professor Grady Tripp's (Michael Douglas) weekend begins badly. His wife leaves him, and his lover, the university chancellor (Frances McDormand), announces that she is pregnant with his child. Tossed into the mix are Grady's gay editor from New York, Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), and James Leer (Tobey Maguire), Tripp's most gifted but troubled student.

(Full disclosure: I know these people. Not metaphorically, but really. At least the people their characters are based upon. I taught in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh for a number of years when Chabon was a grad student there. These characters and a variation of this situation are quite identifiable to anyone who was around at the time. Doesn't make them any less funny, however.)

Tripp is the original "Wonder Boy." His first novel, The Arsonist's Daughter, was a raging success and helped propel his editor, Crabtree, to glory in the publishing business. Seven years later, he's still working on his second book, which has reached phone book size with no end in sight. Crabtree's in town to put the heat on Tripp, with an eye toward shoring up his own now-shaky career. But Tripp has descended into an academic sludgepool -- writing simply to put words on paper, teaching with little enthusiasm, smoking pot incessantly, jumping from one relationship to another. He is no longer a wonder boy; he's just wondering what to do next.

Douglas is a revelation in this role. He plays the self-absorbed and cynical Tripp with just the right mix of detachment and vulnerability. It's a far cry from the rich creep roles he's done so often lately. He plays a sardonic schlub, and it's probably the best acting of his career.

Downey is also good, and very funny. "I don't fit in with the new corporate culture," he says to Tripp at one point. "What's that?" Tripp asks. "Oh, I don't know," he replies, "competency?"

At the core of the story is the mysterious James Leer, a talented, sexually ambivalent, perhaps suicidal student, whose stories of life on the edge (he tells Tripp he lives at the bus station) are the stuff of great fiction, literally. He is pulled into the whirlpool of Tripp's world, a nascent wonder boy with a novel in his backpack, headed into a weekend that will change his life forever. Wonder Boys won't change your life, but it is filled with surprises and delights: laugh-out-loud one-liners, great sight gags, academic humor and, almost inevitably, a sense of loss and poignancy. But it all works somehow, and coming out of Hollywood these days, that's a wonder in itself.

Reindeer Games

If you've seen the trailer for Reindeer Games, then you've pretty much seen the movie. Just about every cool high note, every breathtaking stunt was shown -- except, of course, for the surprise ending, a convoluted affair that, while possible, truly stretches even the most willing audience member's imagination.

Neither of those transgressions matter, however. Reindeer Games, directed by John Frankenheimer, is a good enough action-thriller with something about it just not quite right.

Frankenheimer takes an elegant approach to this movie, much like he did with his last film, the critically well-received Ronin. Whereas most of the genre's directors pound you with nearly nonstop noise and violence, Frankenheimer is a model of patience. He will forsake the 90-to-nothing pace of action pictures for a long, drawn-out sequence -- in slow-motion, if he has to. And the scores of his films are subdued and quiet compared to the rat-tat-tat of the others. In this approach, Frankenheimer gives the filmgoer the utmost credit by letting him take in the movie's events for what they are worth instead of falsely working him up through loud music and constant explosions.

Ben Affleck stars as Rudy, a car thief who's just completed a two-year stint in jail. During his incarceration, Rudy has gotten to know Ashley (Charlize Theron) through the pictures and letters she's sent Rudy's cellmate, Nick (James Frain). Both Rudy and Nick are scheduled to be released on the same day just before the Christmas holidays, but only Rudy makes it out alive, and because Ashley doesn't know what Nick looks like, it is far too easy for Rudy to become Nick for what he reasons will be an easy post-penal encounter.

The set-up backfires on Rudy when Ashley's brutal big-rig-driving brother Gabriel (Gary Sinese), aka Monster, arrives on the scene to pick Rudy-as-Nick's brain for advice on a Christmas Eve casino heist. Initially, Rudy tries to convince Gabriel he's not Nick, until he realizes that if he's Rudy, he's going to end up with a slug in his head. So he wings it the best he can -- all the while going between warmth and disgust for Ashley -- and ends up in a Santa suit to help on the casino job.

Reindeer Games makes much of the human capacity for duplicity. A character may merely misrepresent or pump himself up to something more than he actually is or, more frequently in this film, he will outright lie about his actually identity. It's actors playing people who are acting, which leads (perhaps ironically) to what makes this film not exactly click: one of the actors.

Theron uses her abundant sex appeal for her role and throws in a touch of vulnerability. She is not the one. As for his part, Sinese goes all the way sinister. However, he bulked up for the film, and his head seems like a tiny pea on his new physique, even with the Jesus-style hair he sports for balance. But that is only a small distraction. It's Affleck who is all wrong for the movie. He has the looks for a leading man, yet he doesn't show the depth. Though Rudy is a habitual car thief, rather than giving the part a streak of criminality, Affleck plays it more as a wise-guy schmuck whose biggest crime might be giving someone an atomic wedgie. An array of facial expressions -- happy, sad, scared, smug (this one with a well-timed eyebrow raise) -- is about the best he can offer.

Affleck doesn't completely derail Reindeer Games; he only makes it a little less fun. -- Susan Ellis

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