Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Wonder Boys (2000) ***

Directed by Curtis Hanson. Written by Steve Kloves, from the novel by Michael Chabon. Photography, Dante Spinotti .Editing, Dede Allen. Production design, Jeannine Oppewall. Music, Christopher Young ( "Things Have Changed" written and performed by Bob Dylan). Produced by Scott Rudin and Hanson. Cast: Michael Douglas (Grady Tripp), Tobey Maguire (James Leer), Frances McDormand (Sara Gaskell), Robert Downey Jr. (Terry Crabtree), Katie Holmes (Hannah Green), Rip Torn (Q), Walter Gaskell ( Richard Thomas), Richard Knox (Vernon Hardapple), Jane Adams (Oola), et al. A Paramount release. 112 minutes. R. (drugs)

"It's a puzzlement" as the King of Siam would tell Anna. And some movies can be bigger puzzlements than others. More films than one suspects need a second viewing, so that the past, seen again and recollected in tranquility, might result in a really valid opinion. Ideally that viewing should come days or weeks or months later, but of course this comes too late for the first, hot-off-the-press review. That's where retrospective judgments come in.

The great majority of viewers have given "Wonder Boys" a warm welcome. I add my voice to theirs, but it cannot be as categorical as most. My margin of error is larger than usually.

The movie has interesting makers. Director Curtis Hanson has made some ten pictures (since 1972) including "Bad Influence" and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" before vaulting to fame for his 1997 "L.A. Confidential." Writer Steven Kloves had scripted three : "Racing with the Moon" (1984), "The Fabulous Baker Boys" (1989) -- both very good -- and "Flesh and Bone" (1993) which I don't know. Neither Hanson nor Kloves seems to be in a hurry. "Nice," as Onslow might say in "Keeping Up Appearance."

The cinematographer, the production designer, the editor ( the legendary Dede Allen, resurfacing after many years) are among the best.

The actors are notable and cast with originality. Michael Douglas, the male lead, has never been simpatico. Clark Gable always was, Harrison Ford always is, but Douglas has a kind of ego-centered face that's an asset in some roles but not in others.

Tobey Maguire, now 25, is a major wunderkind of the last decade. So is Katie Holmes, now 22, the revelation of "The Ice Storm" (which also starred Maguire) who went on to TVs "Dawson's Creek," the appealing, offbeat "Go" and the fiasco "Teaching Mrs. Tingle. "

Talented in idiosyncratic ways is Frances McDormand , known as the winner of the Best Actress Oscar in "Fargo" but not for many other, remarkable appearances. In "Hidden Agenda" for instance.

What first struck me about "Wonder Boys" is that it has no pretty men and women, except for Katie Holmes (but who knows what she'll look like in fifteen years?) And what struck me as the movie progressed was that Michael Douglas, in a non-simpatico role, paradoxically has our sympathy, if you follow my drift.

The plot rather convoluted. I have not read the source book but reliable persons tell me that the script follows it well and does not betray it. At the tall tale's center is fifty-something Professor Grady Tripp, played by 56-ish Douglas. He teaches creative writing at a college in Pittsburgh, where the picture was shot, using many Carnegie-Mellon sites. Some eight years ago Tripp had huge success with his first novel. Since then he's been working on his next one. Seized by post-mid-life crisis, plus the fear that comes with the pressure of following a tough act (his own book), unable to make decisions, Grady Tripp keeps writing a mammoth, single-spaced manuscript, He is on page 2611.

Adding to his state of mind is an overkill of other factors : his third wife just left him; his lover of five years, Sara Gaskell (McDormand) who is the Chancellor of the school, tells him she is pregnant by him. Her husband Walter Gaskell ( Richard Thomas) is the ingratiating head of the English Department hence Tripp's boss. Unkempt Grady is a kind of outdated hippie who is partial to pot, wears rumpled, probaly smelly clothes, has dishevelled hair and sometimes looks like something the cat dragged in.

The events take place over the long weekend of "Wordfest," the school's annual literary shindig that brings to campus writers, agents, publishers, some of them weird, as are certain other attendees. "Wordfest" 's host is Walter Gaskell. For a reception in the Gaskell house, he has purchased Lafitte-Rotschild wine, improbably so, since it is so pricey that only a few football coaches might afford it. That's just part of the film's improbabilities, which can be simultaneously part of its appeal-- the story being a kind of semi-affectionate blackish comedy.

Its alternate title might have been "Campus Confidential" an expose of Academe's private face which seems to be an insider's report but in fact is not. Yes, campuses are not exempted from what the Romans used to call "hankium-pankium." Yes, strange people (professors, students, staff and others) do strange things. Yes, many campus-dwellers can be caricatured. But it seldom happens that matters are as pronounced, even blatant, as in the movie. Its authenticity is often questionable.

Among the facts and/or developments are: Sara's pregnancy (decisions, decisions); cute, intelligent, promising writer Hannah, one of Grady's students, rents a room at his house (the third Mrs. Tripp, never seen, has her own house in the burbs) and would love to start something with Grady, who could be her grandfather and wisely takes no action. (The crush is flattering to the quinquagenerian but hormonally unlikely). There is the aside of a black dude whose car he claims Grady has taken. (It's there for farcical absurdism though at the end this gets worked into the story).

What rules the set-up is the person of James Leer (Tobey Maguire), another brilliant writer from Grady's class. Wonderboy James gets somehow involved (don't ask) in the big reception, where a new and very odd relationship is created between him an the other "wonderboy" (at 50-plus?) Grady. Peculiar developments follow. Among them James's shooting dead (with what he had claimed was a toy pistol) Professor Walter Gaskell's blind dog which hates and attacks Grady --who will limp for th rest of the picture; the theft of a valuable Gaskell memento, a jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe at her wedding with Joe DiMaggio; the improbable carrying around the dead hound, for days, inside the trunk of Grady's car.

More complications that raise eyebrows. Grady's editor, the creepy Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) now on the professional skids, comes to the colloquium with a towering transvestite played by Michael Cavadias of the rock group Bullett. Terry is taken with James (with whom he eventually sleeps) while counting on James's and Grady's books-to-be to save his career. (I wonder how Downey, in jail off and mostly on since 1996, has managed to be in about 10 films since 1997!!!)

James is undeniably a huge talent, we are told, though we never have any real proofs of it. James, a sophomore I think is morose, near-catatonic, with all sorts of mysteries, secrets and peculiarities.His character is pushed to such extremes that these also push away one's interest in James.

It was Gertrude Stein who said that she prefers normal people over abnormal ones, "because the normal ones are so much more interesting."

I'll modify this by "eccentrics can be appealing; weirdos seldom are."

James is a congenital liar, a fabulator who keeps inventing his past, an occasional thief, a smoker of Grady's cannabis. I suppose that those traits mean that he's a genuine writer.

Moreover, James is a savant on matters cinematographic. When it comes to Hollywood facts and trivia he has a bottomless memory. Early on he recites a list of actors who killed themselves, with precise dates of their suicides. He could win millions with movie trivia such as "Marilyn was small but most people don't know it." It's unreal, even if film history teachers would love to have James clones in their classes. And it also reminds me of what philosopher Henri Bergson, the 1927 Nobel winner for literature, said around 1900: "Memory is the intelligence of imbeciles."

The movie is hellbent on throwing the viewers off-balance,on depicting weirdness at all costs,whether arbitrarily open --as in-jokes-- or as cryptic allusions. Even fleeting details are commandeered, such as Sara's car, a white vintage French Peugeot DS, already rare in the 60s and 70s USA. Does this intend to connect to the older, hippie days for the benefit of sharp-eyed cognoscenti and deconstructionists? Yet over and above throwaway bits, irritations and such, the movie does have its big share of fun, human comedy and near-slapstick. If ever a film needed a follow-up screening, this is it.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel