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Writers in movies don't use
computers. They don't make copies of their work. They painstakingly peck out their
literary creations on ream after ream of crisp white paper, using quaint, old-fashioned
electric typewriters, then stack their finished pages neatly on their desks. Grady Tripp
is one of these writers. His novel-in-progress (in progress for seven years now, ever
since the publication of The Arsonist's Daughter, his award-winning debut) has
passed the 2000-page mark with no end in sight. Tripp has the opposite of writer's block -
he can't bring himself to finish his novel, because then other people will have to read it
and his status as a 'wonder boy' may be in jeopardy.
Tripp is played by Michael Douglas, an actor who has made a handsome
living in recent years portraying a seemingly endless succession of slimy rich guys. With Wonder
Boys, he's looking to shake up that sleek, self-satisfied image. Grady Tripp is a
shambling wreck of a man, and Douglas plays up the physicality of the role for all he's
worth. His already droopy features sag further into his neck, causing his head to resemble
a soggy sack of groceries. His hair is a tousled mane of gray, he wears his glasses low on
the bridge of his nose and he has a penchant for frilly bathrobes. In some shots, you may
mistake him for your grandmother. But despite all the effort Douglas pours into his
outward appearance, Tripp's internal life remains something of a mystery.
We know that Tripp is going through a difficult period. His wife has
left him, his mistress Sara Giskell (the chancellor of the college where he teaches) is
pregnant, his prize pupil James Leer (Tobey Maguire) has shot and killed Sara's dog, and
his editor is coming to town for the three-day Wordfest gathering, which will also feature
an appearance by a rival author known as Q (Rip Torn, once again deprived of the screen
time he so richly deserves).
The opening scenes of Wonder Boys spool out these various plot
threads with an unhurried, shaggy dog charm. A sort of road company of supporting
characters coalesces around Tripp, and their knockabout night on the town (which includes
the concealment of the canine corpse and Robert Downey, Jr., as the book editor, wooing a
towering transvestite) is the strongest stretch of the film - funny and freewheeling. But
it doesn't last, and before long the story settles down into a conventional morality tale
about growing up and accepting responsibility. The rough edges have been neatened and
smoothed into the usual Hollywood feel-good sentiments.
Director Curtis Hanson is no wonder boy himself, having failed to
distinguish himself with a series of mediocre thrillers such a The Bedroom Window and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. In 1997, however, Hanson
directed the crackerjack adaptation of James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential,
which rendered what could easily have been an unwieldy story into a stylish, confident
neo-noir. Working again from a novel, this time by Michael Chabon, Hanson's hand feels less
sure. Important questions go unanswered. What sort of a writer is Grady Tripp? The little
information we get about his ongoing opus suggests an expansive postmodernist work in the David Foster Wallace
vein, but what is it all about? Should the audience have any stake in the enormous pile of
single-spaced typewritten paper Grady totes around, or does it amount to little more than
a prop for a lame, overdone gag?
The movie stops dead each time the romantic subplot involving Frances
McDormand as Tripp's mistress comes to the forefront. There is zero chemistry between
McDormand and Douglas, and not much more between Grady Tripp and his would-be protege
James Leer. Maguire puts his smirky deadpan to good use in a few scenes, such as one in
which he recites a roll call of celebrities who have met with drug-related deaths. But his
affectless line readings grow wearisome as the film progresses, and too often he seems to
be coasting on his low-key charisma.
Wonder Boys is something of a neither-here-nor-there experience.
The streamlining tactic Hanson utilized in L.A. Confidential might have paid off
here as well, where digressions involving Marilyn Monroe's stolen jacket and a sketchy
character referred to as Vernon Hardapple feel shoehorned into the material. In a way, the
filmmakers have replicated the failing of their central character: they just don't know
when to stop.
- Scott Von Doviak