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Wonder Boys

Doling Out Laughs

By Roy Rodenstein

Staff Writer

Directed by: Curtis Hanson

Written by: Michael Chabon (novel), Steven Kloves

Cast: Michael Douglas, Grady Tripp. Tobey Maguire, James Leer, Frances McDormand, Sara Gaskell, Robert Downey Jr, Terry Crabtree, Katie Holmes, Hannah Green, Rip Torn, Quentin Morewood

How do you follow L.A. Confidential, a taut, Oscar-winning film noir? Director Curtis Hanson chose to next try his hand at Wonder Boys, a slow-paced but fruitful comedy.

As the exhausted and thoroughly jaded writing professor Grady Tripp, Michael Douglas puts on an endearing performance in refreshing contrast with his stock role as a powerful and/or glamorous character. Tripp’s magnum opus was published to great acclaim by Robert Downey Jr’s Terry Crabtree. That was years ago, though, and the follow-up novel isn’t exactly coming along smoothly. Looking at the several tall stacks of paper that form Tripp’s new novel, student James Leer (Tobey Maguire) asks in earnest yet hurtful wonderment, “Is all of that single-spaced?”

Wonder Boys concerns the travails Tripp endures to try to get his life back out of the quirky clutches of his sleepy Pittsburgh environs. He’s too often doped up, he’s grown close to James Leer but has no idea when James is lying to him or telling the truth; he’s having an affair with his boss’s wife, who announces her pregnancy, and, as if that were not enough, he must deal with Crabtree, his eccentric editor who occasionally tries to sneak a peek at Tripp’s unfinished novel. There are no shortage of subplots, such as ones involving a blind dog who loathes Tripp, Crabtree’s attempts at seducing Leer, a waitress named “Oola” and her boyfriend who may or may not be named Vernon, and an expensive jacket supposedly worn by Marilyn Monroe on her wedding day.

All of these obstacles and subplots are humorous and at times downright inspired. The scenes between Tripp and the blind dog, for example, and later ones involving other dogs which induce pangs of guilt in him, are delightful. Katie Holmes, as Hannah Green, another of Tripp’s writing students, delivers two golden lines which make for absolutely hilarious Twilight Zone moments, buoyed by Douglas’s crisp reactions. The comic timing, indeed, is delicious throughout the film. Visual gags, such as a tattered, dirty pink robe which Tripp seems to wear everywhere he goes, round out the movie’s comic arsenal.

The film is based on Michael Chabon’s novel of the same name, and contains some moments of deeper significance as well. The material’s wistful feel and depiction of a harried modern lifestyle are spot-on, and it contains other impressive touches such as the completely natural and matter-of-fact treatment of the relationship between Crabtree and Leer. Did Crabtree successfully seduce him? The film doesn’t make any kind of statement about this and doesn’t even try to hint at what happened. These are not caricatures, and the script carefully picks what issues it wants to focus on and what things are best left neither obscured nor dwelled upon.

To say the characters are not caricatures, unfortunately, is not to say they are all developed appropriately. Rip Torn, as successful writer Quentin “Q” Morewood, has a grand total of two lines and even those are shockingly dull. School Chancellor Frances McDormand as Tripp’s illicit lover Sara gives a charmingly humorous portrayal of a dissatisfied wife, but her husband is in all of two scenes so it’s hard to feel either disdain or pity for him. As for Holmes, other than those two perfectly deadpan zingers, she is given little to work with beyond bland dialogue that sounds like it’s being read straight out of the novel.

On the plus side, the lead roles in Douglas, Maguire, and Downey Jr. are fairly brilliant. Douglas’s performance, while not quite matching Alec Baldwin’s breakout blue-collar father in Outside Providence, manages hilarious grimaces, jaded sighs of resignation, and flashes of professorial insight. Downey Jr.’s appearances result in nary a dull moment, and the chemistry between he and Maguire -- even when Maguire is playing a stoned, sleeping version of his character -- is splendid. In the end it’s Maguire, who has had a string of solid performances in movies such as The Ice Storm and Pleasantville, who walks away with the movie. His James Leer is like a young Edgar Allan Poe: dark, intriguing and unpredictable.

These three performances allow Wonder Boys to sail past most rough spots. The preponderance of flat characters, however, is not an isolated problem but a symptom of the movie’s key shortcoming. As often happens in adaptations from novels, the screenplay tries to pack in as many details from the book as possible and in turn shortchanges most of them. The movie’s under-two-hour running time begins to feel extremely long toward the end, as new loose ends appear and the viewer is left to wonder each time just how long it’s going to take to tie them all together.

Though the movie is consistently offbeat and endearing feel makes up for much of the turbulence, it’s still painful to watch it go through these contortions just to vainly cram all the plot points in. Wonder Boys generates ample good will from the audience, however, and director Hanson is savvy enough to employ its genial atmosphere as counterweight to the occasional boredom. The game cast, an ensemble at the top of their collective game, makes this one largely a joy to sit through.