Wonder Boys

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Wonder Boys

6

USA 2000, dir. Curtis Hanson, stars Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire

Wonder Boys is a pleasant enough little picture, a change of pace for its director and stars between bigger projects. Curtis Hanson’s last film LA Confidential propelled him into the Hollywood front rank, and it’s as if he’s gone out of his way to head in a completely different direction this time, wary of hype and the burden of expectation. He seems to be having fun, as does Michael Douglas, who gets to play a dishevelled, disorganised intellectual, and while Wonder Boys may not, in the end, add up to much, it passes the time entertainingly enough and, daringly for a mainstream Hollywood movie, treats its audience as sophisticated, educated adults.

Which probably explains why it was such a commercial misfire back home. It may do better in Britain, as there is more of a tradition of highbrow campus comedies over here. Transplant the action from Pittsburgh to any British redbrick, replace Douglas with, say, Neil Pearson or Tom Conti, and Frances McDormand with Frances Barber, and you have a quality Sunday night Screen Two presentation.

There’s a distinct John Irving tendency running through Wonder Boys which Hanson and screenwriter Michael Chabon (adapting his own novel) have mercifully steered away from. A blind dog is shot and its corpse carried around in the boot of a car and a 6ft transvestite appears on the scene, but such eccentricities are wisely relegated to the background as the focus concentrates on the interplay between the characters – Douglas’s Grady Tripp, washed-up academic and novelist, conducting an adulterous affair with college principal McDormand; Maguire as his gifted creative-writing pupil; Robert Downey Jr as his hedonistic, exasperated agent.

The film pivots on the relationship between the two Wonder Boys of the title – Douglas, whose first novel was greeted with vast acclaim, but who is now struggling to complete his mammoth followup, and Maguire, whose dour exterior conceals enormous literary promise. Again, with a different emphasis we could be in Dead Poets Society territory, and it’s a relief to find instead a lightness of tone, a cautious but definite optimism.

Hanson’s achievement with LA Confidential was much more to do with his nimble and audacious adaptation of James Ellroy’s source novels, than it was any product of his skill as a director. He’s a competent enough craftsman in that area – his previous work includes The River Wild and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle – but nothing out of the ordinary, and Wonder Boys is a typically anonymous piece of work. Hanson basically lets his actors get on with it, and with Douglas, Maguire and McDormand on board, that’s all he needs to do.