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.