Like L.A. Confidential, Curtis Hanson’s latest picture has allure. The sexiness of L.A. Confidential came with the turf, but the film pulled you deeper. It promised dark secrets of the heart and it delivered. The secrets in Hanson’s bedraggled romantic comedy Wonder Boys are more like those found in the back of an old-sock drawer, but that doesn’t make the film any less of a turn-on.
Wonder Boys also draws you into a world of men whose fragile bonds are the result of circumstance rather than psychological or emotional affinity. And as in L.A. Confidential, their world has time enough for only one woman, who, from the moment she comes on the screen, is clearly the perfect match for the man that matters most in the film. One of the things that makes him matter is that he’s intrigued by her.
Adroitly adapted from Michael Chabon’s slightly picaresque, madly comic novel, Wonder Boys is set on the campus of a Pittsburgh college. In this cloistered, bohemian environment, Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is a star despite the fact that he hasn’t published anything in seven years. In an effort to avoid closure, Grady has allowed his new novel to expand to 2600-plus single-spaced pages. His personal life is similarly out of control. His third wife has just left him, and Sara (Frances McDormand), his lover of five years, who’s also the chancellor of the college and is married to the chairman of Grady’s department, has just told him that she’s pregnant with his child.
To raise the ante on these marital crises, Grady’s editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), has arrived for Wordfest, the college’s annual literary symposium. Crabtree is hoping to save his career with Grady’s new novel; when that proves unlikely, he gloms on to James Leer (Tobey Maguire), Grady’s most talented student. James, who’s eccentric and depressive enough to seem like he might be a real writer, shows up at the Wordfest opening night party with a gun, which he insists is a cap pistol until he uses it to save Grady from having his foot amputated by Sara’s husband’s blind pit bull. Grady and James flee the party with the dead dog and another of Sara’s husband’s prize possessions, a black, ermine-collared sweater that Marilyn Monroe wore when she married Joe DiMaggio. Their adventures have only just begun.
Chabon’s novel evokes the careening trajectories of his character’s lives in prose that’s precise and lyrical and filled with rhythmic surprises. The film does justice to the novel, and not merely because Steve Kloves’s witty screenplay leaves so much of the dialogue intact. Hanson’s filmmaking has a similar precision. Take the scene in which Grady meets Crabtree at the airport. Grady is trying to keep Crabtree off the subject of his book by making small talk. Hanson covers part of this scene in a series of reverse-angle close-ups, which are like no reverse-angle close-ups you’ve ever seen before. Reverse-angle cutting is so old-fashioned that hip directors and editors avoid it whenever possible. But in this scene, thanks not only to Hanson, but to the great Dede Allen, who returns to editing here after an absence of nearly 10 years, each shot arrives on the screen with a zing that’s the visual equivalent of a Max Roach syncopated beat. What’s great about Wonder Boys is that it swings.
It also has a good attitude. Tolerance for eccentricity—not to mention for recreational drugs, adultery, and homosexuality—has been all too rare in movies of late. When the seemingly innocent James winds up in bed with the lecherous but also oddly vulnerable Crabtree, it’s not treated as a big deal. The same goes for Grady and Sara’s secret affair, and for Sara’s protracted deliberations about whether or not to end her pregnancy. Grady puts off making a commitment to Sara by wandering with James and Crabtree around a sodden Pittsburgh, where rain alternates with snow with a regularity that defies all known weather patterns. This is a process–as opposed to a results-oriented approach to the creative act of living a life and, for some of the characters, of making art. The messiness is inevitable. Indeed, Wonder Boys slips into indulgence only at the very end when it ties things up too neatly.
Douglas, who in recent movies has tapped almost exclusively into his easily accessible anger, here regains the light comic touch of Romancing the Stone. Scruffiness becomes him. He not only seems like an interesting human being, but also a human being who’s insane enough to be a committed writer. McDormand, for once, has a warmth that equals her acerbity. She and Douglas convince us they’ve known each other for years. Maguire also does the best work of his career here. For once, his buttoned-up manner is not priggish but a cover for a fragile psyche and a quick mind. Downey, who radiates more energy doing nothing discernible than most other actors do when they let it all hang out, takes the film to another level.
What makes Wonder Boys so enjoyable is the sense that it really was a collaborative endeavor—that the caring and creative relationships that are its subject had some parallel among the people involved in its making. As in L.A. Confidential, Hanson brings out the best in his actors and in his production team, which here includes the aforementioned Allen and Kloves (whose underpraised The Fabulous Baker Boys had a similar comic melancholy) and cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who here proves that dark, dreary weather and comedy are not incompatible.
Imagine King Lear as a contemporary, more comic than tragic “woman’s picture,” with Meg Ryan as Cordelia, Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow as her evil sisters Goneril and Regan, and Walter Matthau as their dying father. This may not be what director Keaton and writers Nora and Delia Ephron had in mind when they conceived Hanging Up, a movie so hackneyed and so condescending to its potential audience (adult women) that even Lifetime might hesitate before running it. Still, the Lear parallel gives you something to think about.
The film is in fact based on Delia Ephron’s 1995 roman à clef, in which the author emerges as the only member of the family with recognizable human emotions. It would be stretching a point to attribute human emotion to Ryan, who has never been so cloying nor so perfectly coiffed as she is here. Kudrow and Keaton are lucky in that they have few scenes, though as director, Keaton has to answer for every last mawkish moment. While the good sister is constantly at her father’s beck and call, the bad sisters are just too busy with their careers to bother with him until he’s in a coma. This is the way successful professionals like Keaton and the Ephrons try to guilt-trip other women who might want to follow in their footsteps. Keaton’s character, by the way, is such a blatant caricature of Grace Mirabella that she might have grounds to sue.
Just as clichéd and condescending to its audience (in this case, the American viewers who flocked to The Full Monty and Waking Ned Devine), The Closer You Get is set in a tiny Irish seaside town whose male inhabitants, blind to the attractive women in their midst, advertise for mates in a Florida newspaper. The most deluded among them is played by Ian Hart, who gives this wretched vehicle his all—going so far as to peroxide his hair and strut around in mail-order Carnaby Street attire. I can’t fault Hart for trying; I just wish someone would give him the great role he deserves.