Wonder Boys

The coming-of-age genre gets a delectably original reworking in Wonder Boys, Curtis Hanson's eagerly-awaited follow-up to L.A. Confidential, a superbly-mounted screwball comedy about the midlife crisis of a college professor who's pushed by forces beyond his control into maturity and responsibility.

In his most richly nuanced performance to date, Michael Douglas heads an ensemble film in which every single part is splendidly cast, including Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire. Adapted to the screen by Steven Kloves, Wonder Boys is a witty, sophisticated comedy that will appeal to mature and educated viewers.

Paramount winter release needs strong critical support for its college-set comedy that, while providing a gratifying entertainment of leisurely elegance and delicious nastiness, lacks the more obvious appeal for today's youth-dominated market.

Effortlessly hoping from genre to genre, Hanson shows that he is a director able to locate through dexterous mise-en-scene the distinctive elements of each film, be it a psychological thriller (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), a routine actioner (The River Wild), or a sublime noirish crimer (L.A. Confidential). His first foray into comedy, Wonder Boys distinguishes itself as an entirely character-driven comedy in which the astute humor derives directly from the bizarre situations–and endless crises–in which the characters find themselves.

After countless comedies set in high-school, a locale as much determined by an obsession with youth in American culture as by demographics of the moviegoing public, it's refreshing to see a campus comedy mostly populated by grown-ups. Most coming-of-age sagas are about boys experiencing a traumatic transition between boyhood and manhood. Like them, Wonder Boys is a chronicle of rites of passage, except that here they define the existence of a middle-age writer who still struggles to find his way.

Pushing 50, Grady Tripp (Douglas), an English professor who was once the wonder boy and darling of the literati, is unable to finish his new novel that has grown into humongous proportions. Consumed with fear that it will fail to live up to his earlier masterpiece, published seven years ago, he toys with various endings and the new book just sits in a pile waiting to be rescued.

In the first scene, a writing class, a sensitive student named James Leer (Maguire) reads from his work and the other classmates provide “constructive” criticism. Tripp immediately recognizes Leer's potential talent–what he fails to realize is the crucial role that the boy play in both his career and emotional life. In a marvelous twist of the heterosexual couples that usually dominate screwball comedies, scripter Steve Kloves centers the narrative on a new type of a romantic (though not gay) duo: a distressed professor and his suicidal student who may be a pathological liar as far as family background is concerned. Indeed, as a comedy-adventure, Wonder Boys follows the logic of a road movie with Grady and James driving their car and encountering one outlandishly bizarre situation after another.

To say that Grady is having a bad day is an understatement. When the story begins, his wife has left him, and soon after, he is informed by his lover, Sara Gaskell (McDormand), the college chancellor who's married to Walter (Richard Thomas), head of English department and hence Grday's boss, that she is pregnant and has not decided yet what to do with their baby.

Complicating the situation and increasing Grady's anxieties is the university's literary festival, “Wordfest,” which brings the outside commercial world into the insular ivy-tower academic environment. It's a crisis time, accentuated by the presence of Q (Rip Torn), the older, self-satisfied writer who serves as the symbol of success that Grady once had but has eluded him for years.

Early on, there is a wonderful sequence, a literati party that captures vividly typical college soirees in which chats range from existential philosophy all the way to sleazy gossip. Grady's flamboyant editor, Terry (a splendid Downey Jr.) arrives with a tall elegant woman, Miss Sloviak (Michael Cavaias) that, as everyone suspects, turns out to be a transvestite. As soon as Terry lays his eyes on Leer, a romantic infatuation begins, leading to some surprising results.

Each of the eccentric characters is marvelously introduced and integrated into the tale. Included among them is Hannah (Katie Holmes), Grady's beautiful student who rents a room in his house and shows unabashed desire to be part of his life. In this, as in other respects, pic is emotionally true in showing a student with an overwhelming crush on her older teacher.

True to form, Wonder Boys has its share of hilariously rude moments, some of which revolve around Walter's dog and a jacket that presumably belonged to Marilyn Monroe. Among the subplots that enrich the central thread is one involving Vernon Hardapple (Richard Knox), who mysteriously stalks Grady and his car, and Oola (Happiness's Jane Adams), his pregnant g.f. who ends up wearing Monroe's jacket.

Unlike most comedies, fresh observations define Wonder Boys with unpredictable twists that escalate into a series of tragicomic incidents. At the end of the film, Grady's unbound manuscript (for which he has no backup) flies out of a car in what's a wonderful spoof of the clichd car chases and shootouts in Hollywood adventures.

Scripter Kloves, who formerly wrote and directed the superbly erotic The Fabulous Baker Boys, is deft at portraying losers: Wonder Boys could be described as a comedy about the gallantry of failure and defeat. His faithful rendition of Michael Chabon's 1995 novel maintains the author's wicked, sharp-tongued and devious humor. Boasting a crazy kind of sweetness, pic exudes tremendous charm, a cumulative result of impeccable timing, right tone, and flawless performances. What comes through in each role is an improbable, almost romantic affection for the character that sets the mood for the whole movie.

Under Hanson's guidance, Douglas shows a real comedic flair seldom tapped before. Miraculously, he digs deeply into the nuttiness without ever camping it up or winking at the audience. As his romantic partner, McDormand excels in a quiet, understated perf. that differs from former parts. Rest of the large cast, particularly Downey Jr., is equally accomplished.

Collaborating again with L.A. Confidential lenser Dante Spinotti, Hanson gives his film, which was shot in wintry Philadelphia, a deliberately unpolished and deceptively casual look that recalls Hollywood's 70s chestnuts in the way it serves comic energy. Dede Allen's masterly editing underlines the rich characterization and brings snap to the storytelling.

With its frisky texture, the movie is constructed as a comic essay with random frivolous touches and eccentric details that emphasize its dry, measured wit and the power of comedy to underscore serious ideas. Massively inventive, Wonder Boys is spiked with fresh, perverse humor, which flows naturally out of the straight-faced playing of the narrative.

Cast

Grady Tripp…….Michael Douglas
James Leer……….Tobey Maguire
Sara Gaskell….Frances McDormand
Terry Grabtree…Robert Downey Jr.
Hannah Green………Katie Holmes
Walter Gaskell…..Richard Thomas
Q……………………Rip Torn
Hank Winters………Philip Bosco
Oola……………….Jane Adams
Vernon Hardapple…..Richard Knox
Miss Sloviak/Tony..Michael Cavaias

Credits

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 112 minutes

A Paramount Pictures release of a Paramount and Mutual Film Company presentation of a Scott Rudin/Curtis Hanson production. Produced by Scott Rudin and Curtis Hanson. Executive producers, Adam Schroeder, Ned Dowd. Directed by Curtis Hanson. Screenplay, Steve Kloves. Camera (DeLuxe, wide screen), Dante Spinotti; editor, Dede Allen; music, Christopher Young; music supervisor, Carol Fenelon; production design, Jeannine Oppewall; costume design, Beatrix Aruna Pasztor; casting, Mali Finn.