Movie Review By Casey McCabe
Over the course of one weekend, novelist and English professor Grady Tripp is left by his wife, given an ultimatum by his pregnant lover, becomes the guardian of a disturbed student, and is forced to confront his lost promise as a writer. Thrown into the mix of the new comedy "Wonder Boys" are enough antic misadventures to keep even Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz busy.
But neither the characters, nor the comedy, ever actually get hysterical. And despite the rapidly converging crises, nothing seems particularly urgent or dangerous. It's really quite charming in a way. There are no bad guys. No shallow, pitiable characters. No childish vindictiveness. No violent ego clashes. Which makes for an extremely pleasant adult comedy, but also makes you wonder if the filmmakers spent any time in a real English department.
Michael Douglas is Grady, seven years removed from his award-winning debut novel, and a dimming literary light on the campus where he teaches the supremely confident and beautiful Hannah Green, played by Katie Holmes, and the supremely spooky and possibly gifted James Leer, played entirely in monotone by the truly gifted Tobey Maguire. The film also stars the always-watchable Frances McDormand, Rip Torn, and Robert Downey Jr., and was directed by Curtis Hanson, late of "L.A. Confidential."
The albatross in the storyline is the 2,600 page and counting second novel that Grady can't bring himself to finish. For unexplained reasons both Grady and his protege James still compose at the typewriter. No computers. Not even a carbon copy backup system. Now that's a far greater 21st Century gaffe than say, using a rotary phone. For a contemporary writer, it is simply unbelievable. Only when we get to Grady's denouement do we understand what the filmmakers were doing. They were cheating. The same might be said for "Wonder Boys" incredibly happy ending, but then the preceding film was never anything but good-natured and forgiving.
Speaking of forgiving, Michael Douglas deserves some credit for this role. I know a lot of people, most of them women, who have a problem with Douglas. Maybe it's a bit of the same entitled playboy smugness that creeps them out about George W. Bush. But Douglas loosens up nicely with his frayed character, plays him with appropriate nuance, and has a credible, vulnerable romance with McDormand, a normal looking woman relatively close to his age. And yet….yet….I can't help but wonder if "Wonder Boys" might not have gone a more interesting direction with a more internal actor playing the writer. A Kevin Spacey. Or a Nick Nolte.
Ah well….as it stands "Wonder Boys" hits its target just fine. It aims for the middlebrow, gives it a gentle comedic smack, and nobody gets hurt.
© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 3/1/00
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