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With: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes, Rip Torn, Jane Adams
Written by: Steven Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon
Directed by: Curtis Hanson
MPAA Rating: R for language and drug content
Running Time: 111
Date: 02/22/2000

Wonder Boys (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Writing the Book of Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There are three kinds of filmmakers. The first kind are the auteurs, who havedeveloped a personal style and constantly deliver quality pictures based on thatstyle. The second kind are impersonal studio workers who deliver Hollywoodproduct without any kind of personal stamp. And the third kind are in some waysthe most satisfying, the kind that have slowly developed over a number of yearsand a number of pictures to a pitch-perfect filmmaking method, where everythingfits well and feels right. Curtis Hanson is such a filmmaker, and Wonder Boys is such a film.

Wonder Boys is Hanson's follow-up to his acclaimed L.A. Confidential (1997). He took his time and chose a project that would suit him rather than doing another film of the same kind. It would take a trained eye and multiple viewings to see the artistic similarities between L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. Both films show his honed professionalism and both are about a multitude of characters, but the comparison stops there.

Wonder Boys is a loose comedy that takes place over a weird snowy weekend in a college town in Pennsylvania during an annual writer's festival. The centerpiece of the story is one Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), a novelist and professor who is working on his long-awaited follow up to his first successful novel. The plot is too complicated and too delicious to turn into a list here, but it involves Grady's prize student (Tobey Maguire), another female student who rents a room from him and nurses a crush on him (Katie Holmes), the Chancellor's wife with whom Grady is conducting a secret affair (Frances McDormand), Grady's colorful agent (Robert Downey Jr.), another successful writer who turns out a book a year (Rip Torn), and a blind dog with a death wish for Grady. The ghosts of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio haunt the film as well in the form of a black jacket Monroe wore on their wedding day.

Equal credit for Wonder Boys should be given to writer Steve Kloves, who adapted the novel by Michael Chabon (a Bay Area resident). Kloves is best known as a writer-director himself, with films such as The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) and Flesh and Bone (1993), quiet, intelligent films that allowed for rich character development and top-notch performances. With Wonder Boys not a line or a scene is wasted.

The point at which I realized I was watching something special came when Tobey Maguire recites his list of celebrity suicides, names, dates, and causes, in alphabetical order. Then later happily watches a George Sanders movie on TV (one of our great celebrity suicides). The film works like that--a particular moment or image will strike you: McDormand working in her ethereal greenhouse, never mincing or misplacing a single word when she speaks; Douglas and Maguire, two misplaced outsiders conversing outdoors on a dark snowy evening; Downey Jr. stopping mid-sentence to admire a leopard-skin covered tuba case in baggage claim.

Space is also used for great effect in this movie. Douglas lives in a run-down house with books and papers strewn everywhere, while his ex-wife (whom we never see) lives in the kind of warm, clean house "you want to wake up in on Christmas morning". When Maguire and Douglas, having recently taken painkillers and booze, enter the school auditorium during a presentation, the camera wobbles and re-focuses imperceptibly to make us feel the drunkenness. Not to mention the wonderful snowy landscape that adds a strange majesty to the proceedings.

But I've gone off on a tangent, much like the 2600 page book Douglas' character tries to write. Wonder Boys is more than the sum of its parts. It's warm, funny, and piercingly intelligent. It looks at one of life's most noble themes; people searching for something, even if we don't know what that something is. In addition, it's very refreshing to see a movie that celebrates writing and intelligence without stooping to become a filmed record of a novel (as in The Cider House Rules). My only problem with this movie is that it seems to rush towards its finish, while a movie like this deserves a happy ending. That aside, Wonder Boys ventures into the realm of cinema and nears greatness.

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