Curtis Hanson directs Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr. and Frances McDormand in this literary comedy where a stoned professor must make some big decisions when he cannot finish his epic sophomore novel, his star student shoots his boss’ dog and the women in his life offer him a variety of ultimatums.
The film the versatile Curtis Hanson decided to make after the Oscar success of L.A.Confidential gave him a blank cheque in Hollywood. Adult, quirky, considerate, funny, intelligent. The Big Lebowski for people who read “Great American Novels” rather than noir pulp. Wonder Boys feels like both a parody and a celebration of U.S.A. literary pretentions. A sad sack Confederacy of Dunces. A middle aged Catcher in the Rye. A freewheelin’ Stoner. I don’t know about that last one. I haven’t read Stoner yet. Verbose and sensitive, allegorical but with a chaotic heart, Wonder Boys makes cinematic the experience of devoting a week to a lauded novel that might just change your life. The warm wintery weekend world of tactile symbols (a stolen coat, a dead dog, a battered pink nightgown) and labyrinthian human connections helps. The fact everyone seemingly is writing their own future classic on clanky inky typewriters of old seals the deal. This is a rambling ensemble piece. The casting is perfect. McDormand – the desirable mature soul with her own life to worry about. Downey Jr – the puckish agent of chaos, desperate for Grady Tripps’ next masterpiece before he loses his job. Tobey Maguire – as the unsettling savant, full of lies and who only speaks in the terse seductive imagery of Richard Ford or William Maxwell. Katie Holmes – never more desirable in her red cowboy boots, an easy to make bad choice in waiting for Grady. Even in the lower ranks Alan Tudyk, Jane Adams, Michael Cavadias and Rip Torn turn two scenes characters into fully fleshed spirits. But this is Michael Douglas’ show – as the imperfect, utterly human, gone to seed lost talent. His Grady Tripp is relatable and loveable. Watching him make terrible decisions and moments of faltering low-stakes heroics is a joy. Douglas is playing against type. The other end of the keyboard from his equally out-of-his-comfort-zone powerhouse in Falling Down. His yuppie-in-peril back catalogue is what he’ll remain a legend for but his unusual breaks in stuff like Falling Down and here prove what a genuine talent he is. Wonder Boys is a warm hug from a intelligent body. You’ll feel smarter having watched it even though it still sates all your entertainment receptors with a gentle wit and many ribald twists… even a car chase or two. A forgotten gem.
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