Movie Review: It happened one weekend

Cap guns, bad habits, purloined jackets & wonder boys
Sat, 01/25/2014 - 3:00pm

Wonder Boys (USA, 2000)

Directed by: Curtis Hanson

MPAA Rating: R [strong language]

In “Wonder Boys,” a best-selling novelist nicknamed ‘Q’ (Rip Torn), gives a speech at Wordfest, a writer’s conference held annually in winter at an unnamed Pittsburgh university. After a dramatic pause, he begins with a simple, groan-inducing statement: “ a writer.” This is met with hearty applause.

Q is rich, beloved in literary circles and “completes a novel every 18 months,” according to Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), a tenured creative writing professor at the unnamed university who’s weighed down by a successful past, an idle present, a failing marriage and a recreational drug habit. Charming and aloof and disheveled, he clears his head and escapes reality through smoke clouds and a skullfull of pills.

Tripp’s self-medicated routine is broken up the weekend of Wordfest by the arrival of Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), his eccentric, sexually-confused (but not worried) editor whose lively persona belies a harsh truth: he’s considered a has-been back in New York, where his last notable success was editing Tripp’s acclaimed debut novel, “The Arsonist’s Daughter.” Crabtree’s in town to attend Wordfest and take a long-awaited look at Grady’s long-overdue (by seven years) follow-up.

Tripp is broken up further by surprising news concerning Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), Chancellor of the English Department and the true love of his life. The two have been having an affair while still married to others — Tripp to his vague and omnipresent third wife, Emily (never shown), Sara to her husband Walter Gaskell, English department chairman, baseball enthusiast and Grady’s boss.

Grady’s biggest shock, however, lies in his chance encounter with one of his students, the sharp but socially inept James Leer (Tobey Maguire).

Leer is a compulsive storyteller. His stories wallow in self-pity and depression, but there’s a creative spark lurking between the lines. When Prof. Tripp finds Leer brandishing a souvenir ‘cap-gun’ outside a party held at the Gaskell residence, he invites him in the house and, effectively, his life.

And so starts a long, labyrinthine weekend of purloined jackets, blind watchdogs, stolen cars, 12-year old policemen, novels-in-progress, transvestites, fictional hairdressers named Claudell, double-Dickels on the rocks, pregnant waitresses named Oola and “hearts beating only out of habit.”

Directed by Curtis Hanson, co-recipient of an Academy Award (Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay) for the outstanding neo-noir “L.A. Confidential,” “Wonder Boys” is, once again, a novel adapted flawlessly and perfectly realized on the big screen. Considering the motley crowd of characters and situations, it could’ve been a total flop, creatively, in less capable hands. Thankfully the cast is up to the challenge.

It’s the subtleties and stellar ensemble that really shine throughout “Wonder Boys,” from the unrequited love between Prof. Tripp and favored student Hannah Green (Katie Holmes, lovely with a wit to match, compulsively clad in red cowboy boots — Joey Potter of Dawson’s Creek all grown-up) to Crabtree’s impromptu house parties without a host, to Tripp and company packing into a beat-up Ford Galaxy 500 and finding action even when trying to avoid it. Especially when trying to avoid it.

James Leer is Maguire at his finest, since you’re allowed — required, even — to be somewhat grueled by his presence. He broods, he apologizes all the time, he’s so sensitive; he’s excellent.

Douglas, taking a break from his usual role as the doomed Lothario with a penchant for scorning obsessive/possessive women, is effortlessly cool as a pot-addled professor swathed in a pink bathrobe, joint in mouth, shuffling around on a bum ankle. Expertly nuanced, it could be his finest role. He toes a unique balance between being too careless and too careful that when endless reams of his unfinished manuscript disappear into the ether, it’s the moment he’s been waiting for to present itself.

Q’s speech to the literary crowd (continued): “Presumably each of you has an idea, but how do you get from there to here? What is the bridge from the water’s edge of inspiration to the far shore of accomplishment?”

Q’s message is loftier that his words can handle, and his bravado laughable (according to James Leer), but there’s truth in that broad detail concerning the bridge. There are countless bridges to cross throughout “Wonder Boys.” Pittsburgh itself is surrounded by rivers and bridges, more bridges than any city in North America. There are other bridges as well: straight and narrow ones dealing with infidelity disguised as love (or is it the other way around?), vast ones that widen rather than shorten because of an inability to stop, to push past the bridge entirely into an endless ribbon of tar (ink in Grady’s case), unable to reach a destination or goal because there was never one to begin with. And when these bridges finally collapse under the weight of our fixations, how will we get from there to here?

Q: “Faith. Faith that your story is worth the telling. Faith that you have the wherewithal to tell it.”

True, Q – very true.