Wonder Boys (2000)

D: Curtis Hanson
S: Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand

Well written and performed blackly comic drama with Michael Douglas as a middle-aged college writing professor with various personal and ethical conflicts to deal with over one long weekend. First there's the small matter of being abandoned by his latest, long-suffering wife, then there's the fact that his true affections are directed towards college Chancellor Frances McDormand (Fargo), who can't seem to hear what he's trying to say. Meanwhile a strange but brilliant young student, Tobey Maguire (The Ice Storm) seems to be drifting to strange places which his teacher can barely perceive and beautiful young female student Katie Holmes (Go) has taken up residence in his place and seems especially eager to act as a confidant. Of course then there's the small matter of his novel which has been in development hell for seven years since his first and only smash critical success. His editor, Robert Downey Jnr. (Natural Born Killers) is flying into town for the weekend with the unstated but definite purpose of getting a look at the manuscript, which is far from complete. This is only the beginning. As the weekend gets underway, events transpire which force Douglas to address questions about himself, his life, and his muse which may or may not bring about resolution.

Steve Kloves' (The Fabulous Baker Boys) script from the novel by Michael Chabon is pleasingly convoluted and funny. It is mildly satirical but not bitter, and though it avoids probing the darker corners of its characters lives, it has fun dancing on the edge of something bitchier and deeper. The film is not exactly classical in structure, ambling along from scene to scene as if in a waking daydream, but director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) succeeds in sustaining a workable pace and arriving at an effective climax. The film lacks urgency, but it gets where it's going at more or less the speed it needs to allow the combination of picaresque character vignettes, semi-surreal incident, and more detailed characterisation to unfold. And unfold they do rather than develop in the more usual sense, because as it goes the film seems to roll over and reveal some other interesting avenue down which it may or may not go for a while before gradually making the whole picture clear. Douglas' voice over sustains the narrative core, but this is not a movie which could be used in screenwriting courses without strong warnings and a good grilling in more conventional methods beforehand.

It is tempting to link this unconventionally textured male mid-life crisis film to American Beauty but they are very different pictures. Wonder Boys has a better script, with characters who emerge from a narrative fog rather than stand out like icons. It is also a less specifically surrealist take on the subject, and though it comes to similar conclusions about the right to self-determination and the intervention of fate in the life of the American male, its half-world of sleepless nights, odd moments in darkly lit cars, diners, and snow-bound back streets, and unexpected developments in the story feel less schematic. As ever, of course, the appearance of randomness is usually the result of careful planning, and Hanson and Kloves have generated a very particular and very striking tone which falls outside of 'pure' convention. But it stops short of testing the limits of the mainstream as American Beauty did and is a lot less showy about what it's doing along the way.

Michael Douglas is well cast in the lead and makes the most of his part without trying to overwhelm the delicate balance between primary and secondary characters upon which much of it relies. His deliberately shabby appearance and seeming inability to serve as a proactive protagonist may surprise some viewers, but if they're willing to accept it, the character and the performance fit the movie. He's laid back without being weary, tired without being tedious, and convincingly bursts into fits of bizarre behaviour without affecting an appearance of contrived 'zaniness' or anything of the sort. Maguire is amusing as the slightly zoned-out young writing student, Holmes flits in and out without making all that much difference to events though her character makes sense on its own terms, McDormand is excellent in a role which demands a range of complex responses and detailed bits of acting to convey a lot in a short time, Downey is a lot of fun. Other supporting roles are filled by Rip Torn (Men in Black) and Richard Thomas (TV's The Waltons) and a dog named Screamer.

Wonder Boys is a nice little movie which slips through a lot of generic and otherwise definitive cracks. It feels a bit like an early Barry Levinson film, a bit like Coen Brothers lite, a bit Dead Poets Society without the sentimentality, and is a lot closer in spirit to The Fabulous Baker Boys than one of Hanson's thrillers. Still, it is an interesting follow-up project to L.A. Confidential for the director which at least has the merit of having enough of its own identity in the combination of its elements to make it worth seeing on its own terms. It may not appeal to all audiences, but there is much here to enjoy and appreciate if your sense of humour runs to the slightly offbeat and your patience for narrative extends beyond the pleasant stupor of three act structure and hi-octane action.

The film experienced some distribution problems on its initial release in the U.S., prompting a re-release later in the year. You may have to go a little out of your way to find Wonder Boys on its Irish release, but it is actually worth it if you're prepared to give it a chance. It may still not prove an Oscar contender, but sometimes having genuine character is more important than being acknowledged by the industry. Of course, having both would be nice, I'm sure.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.