For the entirety of Wonder Boys, things simply happen to Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), its protagonist. That is both a synopsis of the entirety of the plot, adapted from Michael Chabon’s novel by screenwriter Steve Kloves, and something of a way to prepare the viewer for the experience of watching the movie, directed by Curtis Hanson (his follow-up to critical darling and certain masterpiece L.A. Confidential). This film is about a lonely, miserable, bathrobe-clad, marijuana-smoking bastard whose unquantifiable ego has afforded him a lot of accomplishments and no fulfillment by them whatsoever. He begins the story in a state of self-pity, and if you’re predicting that he might end the story in that same state, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. He does find one morsel of fulfillment, at least.

The central question of the story is whether Grady deserves even that one morsel, and Kloves and Hanson are rightly unsure about the answer. As the movie starts, Grady is getting deeper and deeper into his sophomore novelistic effort, a seemingly endless book about, well, nothing its author can really specify. “I just couldn’t stop,” he says when asked why he kept writing it. Perhaps that’s all we need to know. There isn’t much of a plot here, but to the extent that there is one, it begins as Grady is visited by his publisher Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.). He arrives (accompanied by a drag queen named Antonia Slovak, played by Michael Cavadias) under the pretense of attending WordFest, a prestigious event held by the university at which Grady is a creative writing professor.

The event is just an excuse for Terry to find out whether Grady, whose previous book was a bestseller that made the publisher’s career, has written a worthy follow-up. Meanwhile, Grady is juggling other concerns, such as his ongoing affair with Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), university chancellor and wife of the English department head Walter (Richard Thomas). Two students, James (Tobey Maguire) and Hannah (Katie Holmes), also have ongoing drama. For the latter, it’s an unreciprocated attraction to her professor. For the former, an enigmatic young man in the middle of his own work of fiction, it’s the fact that he shoots and kills the Gaskells’ dog when it attacks Grady. To make things worse, he uses what he believes to be a replica gun, which turns out to be very real.

If this sounds like a series of events, connected only by the characters experiencing, well, that’s because it is. Miraculously, though, Kloves and Hanson crafted a film that does not feel meandering or pointless. The filmmakers are fully invested in and understand the nuances of Grady’s personality, and most importantly, so do we. A big part of this is due to Douglas, whose performance brings the man’s cantankerous impatience to life as vividly as Dante Spinotti’s cinematography communicates the harsh cold of a Pittsburgh winter. A no-less-considerable part is Kloves’ screenplay, which approaches everything with the absurdist attitude of a comedy and the delicate understanding of its characters’ humanity that one might expect from a tragedy.

There are whispers of a tragedy here, too. No, the story does not end as a tragedy might, but there really is only one path for each of these characters. The supporting cast, instead of simply allowing Douglas his space to dominate the picture, is stellar across the board, perfectly assembled and conducted by Hanson (no stranger to deep ensembles). Downey is a hilarious spitfire as Terry, and with his opposing energy, Maguire composes himself with a lot of dignity as James, a troubled young man unsure of himself or his place in the world. McDormand is warm and vibrant as the only possible foil for Grady’s own crabbiness. And in conjunction with editor Dede Allen, Hanson’s pacing never flags, especially as we enter a climax that ups the ante of everything, absurdism included.

Of the film, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in February, Roger Ebert once wrote: “The movie is an unsprung screwball comedy, slowed down to real-life speed.” That pretty much says it all, and to paraphrase a colleague, it’s the most quotable movie of all time that isn’t quoted by anyone. Its original release was a financial disaster, and an awards-qualification re-release nine months later, in November 2000, did nothing to prevent its $30-million loss for Paramount Pictures. Hopefully, new life can be found for Wonder Boys, a special movie in which a wandering soul tests our ability to sympathize with a protagonist. Does Grady Tripp deserve that sympathy? That’s fodder for a think piece. No doubt Grady would scoff, smoke some pot, and go on writing his book. He can’t stop.

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One Comment

  1. Jonas

    September 5, 2020 at 6:31 pm

    Great movie. Great quotes. Great snowy night with cup of soup movie.


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