Curtis Hanson's Underrated 'Wonder Boys' is a Gem of Modern Movie Making
In its insatiable quest to destroy everything that is good, 2016 has taken another great talent from us. Curtis Hanson sadly died this week. He was 71, and as with any artist’s passing the lists of his achievements have begun to circulate. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, 8 Mile, the superlative L.A. Confidential — Hanson was a veteran and a craftsman who was not afraid to seek new horizons. More than any other of his movies, however, the one that epitomises this searching, yearning instinct for me is his criminally underrated Wonder Boys. Made at the turn of the millennium as a follow-up to Confidential it was always going to feel a bit small, a bit confusing. The time for its critical reappraisal is long overdue. Wonder Boys is a gem of modern movie making.
Adapted by Hanson and writer Steve Kloves from the Michael Chabon novel of the same name, Wonder Boys is set in and around a Pitssburgh campus as it follows perpetually stoned novelist and professor, Grady Tripp, over the course of a long weekend. The unnamed university that he works at, stuck in a perpetual psycho-social limbo of student-graduate-professor, is hosting a literary festival, and there are a plethora of activities, readings, and parties afoot. Tripp, played wonderfully and with nuanced understanding by Michael Douglas in one of the best roles of his career, is thrown together with one of his students, James, for the majority of this weekend. Tripp wrote what is generally acknowledged as a great novel seven years ago, and he has been struggling with writer’s bloc, ennui, and a fear of failure since then while trying to come up with a follow-up. Despite his easygoing stoned facade there are vast lakes of insecurity and vulnerability hidden just beneath the surface, and perhaps this is why James — played as a gifted but cryptically depressed pathological liar by Tobey Maguire — decides that it’s worth his time to bond in his own weird way with Tripp despite the fact that the very concept of human interaction seems otherwise alien to him.
If this all seems just a tad too precious and inward-looking you should know that, sourced from a Chabon novel as it is, there is a series of near-slapstick events that the protagonist stumbles through and a rotating roster of colourful characters that swim in and out of his uniquely affected consciousness which makes the experience anything but. I am not a fan of revealing more than the bare bones of plot, but to know that Tripp and James’s weekend involves, among other things, guns, dead dogs, cops, sex, weed, Marilyn Monroe, pregnancy, a stolen car, and an effervescent literary agent played Robert Downey Jr. is not to reveal too much — it’s to highlight how much pure fun Wonder Boys is to watch. This is not the flashy movie making of L.A. Confidential, but it has a spring in its step all of its own — both in the literate but naturalistic rhythms felt in the characters’ interactions, and in the great Dante Spinotti’s (L.A. Confidential, Heat) understated but immersive cinematography.
There is a scene about halfway through the movie that I have always loved. Tripp and James are hiding out at the former’s house following a — let’s say, ‘event-packed’ — party the night before. It is a rainy morning, and it is the first time we are seeing the inside of Tripp’s home — as well as the manuscript of his unfinished, now-uncontrollably-sprawling novel. The camera glides lazily over the lush but messy surfaces of Tripp’s wood paneled rooms, following him as he slowly finds his writing seat and sits, hands finally settling onto his typewriter.
It is a small but emotionally and symbolically resonant moment for Grady Tripp, a man putting off reckoning with his past and potential future. Framed by his scattered possessions and a bout of inclement weather outside, the literary bubble that is his life stands in stark relief. This may first and foremost be a writer’s movie, but it is filled with such well-crafted, quietly resonant imagery which isn’t there to overwhelm or to draw attention to itself.
Which is a thing that could just as easily be said about Wonder Boys as a whole. This is a movie I must have seen at least ten times since its release. In its rich textures it has a quiet power and a subtly compulsive draw, but it never strains or makes too big a deal of itself. You’ll either like it or you won’t, and that’s okay. Wonder Boys, Curtis Hanson’s quiet masterpiece, will still be there if you ever feel the urge to reappraise it and give it another chance.
Also, Frances McDormand is in it.
So, you know, there’s that.
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