RIORI Volume 3, Installment 10: Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys” (2000)


Wonder Boys


The Players…

Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes and Robert Downey, Jr.


The Story…

Writing professor Grady Tripp is at a crucial juncture in his career, his relationships and his life. It’s unfortunate he doesn’t realize this. After relentless years trying to write the follow-up to his first, critically acclaimed novel with no success, he looks elsewhere for some inspiration as well as a leg to stand on. It’s a fruitless journey, and the prospect of only having teaching to fall back on/shackled to mediocrity to reaffirm his dwindling esteem isn’t helping his quest bear fruit. Still always teaching, always teaching.

Unbeknownst to Grady—as well as by most signposts along the road—his best student James might be able to offer some perspective (however bleak) on how to make some decent choices, both within and without a book at your back. It might take a few pills, however.


The Rant…

This time out, I promise to try and play nice. Try, mind you.

About a year ago—give or take—I covered Gus Van Zant’s Finding Forrester. It was a mentor/protégé story about a young writer trying to find his voice and a reclusive, older writer trying to coax his adolescent charge to discover “the writer within. The critics tore it to shreds and hawked up the jetsam all over the sidewalk. The plot was accused of being very derivative, and comparisons to Van Zant’s previous effort, Good Will Hunting abounded. Such gripes weren’t unwarranted. Still, it remains a pet film of mine. Chalk it up to my idol worship of Sean Connery—who was the titular lead—and newcomer Rob Brown’s earnest portrayal as Forrester’s insecure pupil and eventual friend, Jamal. There was a lot of sentimental drivel, and not all the roles were acted well (sometimes plummeting into stereotypes), but I feel thanks to Connery and Brown’s chemistry, the film ended up be better than the sum of its parts.

Despite me being all crass and bitchy, I’m a sentimental fool at heart. Buddy movies revolving around writing always both nab my attention and lift my spirits, even if the film is properly labeled derivative and shallow (or simply just plain lame. Sue me). Call it a guilty pleasure, like Double Stuf Oreos, ABBA and any movie “Savage” Steve Holland directed.

*crickets*

If you got it, you know. Check the IMDB if not. Then stream One Crazy Summer. One of Cusack’s finest 🙂

See? I’m already trying to be more cordial. Sure it’s hurting my jaw, but I think it’ll be worth it. I think. I hope.

This year we have a similar movie, but it avoids the trappings of overt sentimental claptrap, unlike Forrester. At least at the outset. I mean, c’mon, you can’t have a mentor/student story without at least a little frosting on the cupcake. The two characters gotta eventually like each other, or at least reach a mutual understanding, By extension so should the audience. But I think—know—that establishing such necessary bonds don’t need to involve a lot of hugs and being maudlin. Was Forrester that way? Yeah, at times. But I managed to overlook it, again mostly thanks to the great Sean Connery and his fantastically unconvincing hairpiece.

I think it might be possible to pull such a story off with somewhat unpleasant characters that seem to be at odds with one another for almost the entire movie. And I’m talking reciprocal apprehension and even hostility here. Hell, worked for the Lethal Weapon movies (Okay. Bad example). That kind of dynamic makes for some juicy tension, and as any writer worth their salt can tell you: stories thrive on and are driven by tension. Sometimes the tension in a movie isn’t dictated solely by this precept, mind you. Tension in a story can take up many different guises. There’s the classic man-vs.-society trope (think Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), or the man-vs.-self idiom (again, Brazil), or the man-vs.-the unknown scenario (also…you get it). Sometimes the leads may just be drifting, ships in the night kind of thing, passively poking each other’s brainpans. Y’know, eventually sort of mirroring each other’s issues. A cracked mirror maybe. Still, being poked is being poked, and sooner or later someone’s gotta scratch at that itch…


Professor Grady Tripp (Douglas) doesn’t believe in writer’s block. He instructs his writing students that all you have to do is keep on writing. And writing. It’s how he he’s kept at his latest novel. Latest, that is, since his first published book…seven years ago.

In the interim, regardless of any encouraging words to his class, Grady’s had a tough time of it. His wife left him. He’s in Dutch with the university’s chairman of the writing department—not to mention Grady having an affair with his wife Sarah (McDormand), the school’s Chancellor. Like most is pro choices, looks like the good professor never learned to not sh*t where one eats.

In addition to his tryst, Grady is having to deal with his smarmy editor Terry (Downey), whose very job hinges getting Grady’s still unfinished second book—a spiraling, out of control, 2000-plus pages, nary an ending in sight monster—to print. His prodding another nagging reminder of Grady’s career arrest. And with the annual Wordfest fast approaching, there’s his class to consider, and who’ll be the next candidate to maybe win a publishing deal. All this straddles Tripp’s ever weakening shoulders.

Oh, there’s also this matter of his star pupil, withdrawn, morbid James Leer (Maguire). What is up with this introverted, sullen kid? His kind feels all too familiar for Grady.

The kid’s got talent; some real promise. If only Grady could coax a little humanity out of the guy. But James is dodgy, distant and like one too many caricatures of solitary, troubled, genius writers of the past. Terry thinks James could easily be published, and a success story like that might lift Grady’s slumping spirits. Something like that might make the daily grind of his job gain some meaning again.

That could be all good for Grady, but with all that other crap looming large—and his increasingly unhealthy weed habit—he doubts himself as being the ideal candidate for a mentor. Besides, there’s always that damned novel at his back.

Professor Tripp says he won’t acknowledge writer’s block. It looks like Grady won’t acknowledge any responsiblities, either…


Obeying The Standard, Wonder Boys got stuck in the tender trap of critical acclaim bookended with sh*tty box office returns. It only recouped a little more than half of its initial $55 million budget, even after Michael Douglas charged half of his going rate (yeah, he has a going rate). By Hollywood standards it more or less meant, “Yay! Craft services got covered! Now there’s all this promo crap we gotta do to pay for our valet parking fees!” I guess that’s showbiz. But in the final analysis, Wonder Boys was not a flop; the film wouldn’t have shown up here at RIORI otherwise. It didn’t find itself sweeping the gold dust off its shoulders, either. Right in line, step in time. We’re hugging the median here.

Forrester didn’t fare so hot, too. It might’ve been the weak script—more like predictable script—that put people off. Or maybe it was blah supporting characters. Perhaps it was you could see the ending a light-year away. Me? I blame Anna Paquin. In any event, Boys shares a similar vibe with Forrester and not just in middling box office returns. There’s the whole writer connection, not to mention the dysfunctional nature of both character’s practicing their craft. Also the whole difference in age thing, as well as the mentor/student relationship. Plus the whole “rising star, setting sun,” passing-the-torch schtick. Both movies were even released in the same year, for Christ’s sake (Boys in February 2000, Forrester in December 2000). By the last factoid, one might wonder—maybe even aloud—if one influenced the other to some degree. Unsure, on all fronts.

In spite of both movies have similar themes, comparing Forrester to Boys is like comparing a Ford Windstar to a Ferrari P4/5. Sure, they’re both cars, and they’ll get you to where you need to go. But it’s how they get you to your destination that makes the difference (sorry for the repeat of driving metaphors. It’s tough to for me to be original when I’m minding my manners. Now back the f*ck off).

To be totally honest, I had seen Wonder Boys before. It was over a decade ago, during my wilderness years. Yeah, I know I talk about those chemically enhanced—or depending on how you look at it, retarded—days a lot here. You’re no doubt a tad sick of it. I understand; you’ve seen a pattern forming. I’m not proud of those wasted—literally—years, but I’m not going to deny them, either. It’d be like Grady Tripp telling James to lay off his dope: I should know better. More accurately, I wish I knew then what I know now. There are times where your sole purpose in life is to serve as an example—or warning—to others. Even to yourself.

And that’s one to grow on. Anyway:

Yeah, I “saw” Wonder Boys many years previous. Not sure how I recalled seeing the thing at all. It was only happenstance—maybe more like a willful memory cell finally recovering from the hangover—that I foggily remembered it. After scouring Box Office Mojo, surprise, its lame returns from the Cineplex and high praise from the movie snobs granted Boys entrance into The Standard’s club. So, yay.

Now I got to watch the movie with a mostly clear head. I think back in the day Boys’ premise caught my attention, what with the story about struggling writers in a collegiate setting. It might also have been Grady’s debilitating weed abuse, of which I could relate. Well, whatever. This week, I blew away the dust and actually watched and even appreciated the thing. That’s right: appreciated. However my enjoyment of Boys in relation to Forrester is like comparing apples to aquarium gravel. Regardless of the movies’ similar archetypes, I found Boys to be the superior film, even with my warm fuzzy for Connery.

First of all with Boys, it’s refreshing to see a quirky character study that doesn’t stagger into Wes Anderson territory. Don’t get me wrong. I think Anderson’s films are a blast, but they’re a little wanting in the subtlety department. I mean, c’mon, you can’t always have your cast of dysfunctional characters act like rejects from a Fellini-esque Adam Sandler flick (think about that. Now, sorry). You can only go so far, or do much with quirky characters until they start to distract the audience from the story proper. Admit it, even Anderson suffers from this problem. A lot can be said for carefully setting up a film’s characters to not come across as conflicted, gonzo loons in the first act, or first scene for that matter. Conflicted, sure. Remember what I said about creating tension? Right, and using a l’il bit of Vaseline on the lens focusing on our dramatis personae can sometimes go a lot longer, eventually feeling a lot more investing than a perpetual Bill Murray signature slouch. In Boys, director Hanson takes us for a car ride, off and on, down the road of elegant character study.

Make no mistake, like with Forrester’s struggling writers, Boys is first and foremost a character study. But that is where the similarities end. Where Forrester was optimistic, Boys has a dark, almost impenetrable heart. First what’s notable is Grady’s flat narration. We fast learn that he’s a writer, even though in the first paragraph he mentions his absentee wife, his affair with Sarah, him being beleaguered with his teachings and students, particularly James and Holmes’ Hannah (whom I failed to find any real justification for being in the movie…or any movie, really), and him trying to compensate for the inability to complete his second book, which has become like the proverbial albatross. In the first paragraph! Narrating! Even when the rest of the cast makes their presence known on screen, it’s all drawn faces and feelings of resignation. No color here, yet they’re already quite vivid. No French Bowie soundtrack either. Calm down. I thought Zissou was great. Go read the review.

Since we’ve now established that Boys is a character study, we’d better pray that the characters are interesting. Compelling. Fully fleshed out.

Not necessarily likeable.

It’s a common fallacy that characters in fiction must be likeable. Bzzzt. Wrongo. C’mon, is Hannibal Lecter really a likeable dude? What about Darth Vader? Or even Walter White from Breaking Bad? One’s a psycho who eats people, one’s an evil overlord who tried to kill his own kids and one’s a dying, desperate man engaging in some dubious method of establishing life insurance. And if any of those examples were spoilers, too f*cking bad and get more culture. Do those guys really sound like any one of them would be a good bar bro? What, really? Then you belong on the list.

Good characters must be interesting. Grady and James are not likeable. But they sure ain’t boring.

Take James for instance. He’s hollow, but not in a bad way. There’s something lacking in Maguire’s performance. I’m not saying the performance itself is lacking; James has this omnipresent need for something, like he’s been searching to fill up said hollowness. He’s cold, taciturn, naïve and about as cuddly as a teddy bear stuffed with cactus needles. All we know from the outset is that James is a very talented writer and so socially awkward and morose you want to alternately smack and flee him. It’s a far cry from Maguire’s role as Spidey two years later, and a heck of a lot more weighty.

Then we have James’ foil—maybe it could be viewed the other way ‘round—Grady. Douglas’ Professor Tripp is a prickly, self-absorbed, philandering mope. He has a drug problem he won’t own up to. His novel’s going nowhere except into infinity. He’s not terribly involved in his students, if not outright disdainful. He’s made a lot of sh*t choices in his misspent life, and he fails to either realize this or just won’t admit it to himself. You’d like to tell Grady to go take a flying leap, or smack him upside the head maybe. He may be a drudge, but he’s also intriguing.

Both James and Grady have a rich backstories to draw from. What the hell happened to them? This is what draws us into their worlds, and makes us curious to where’ll they take us. It’s the whole “then what happens?” ploy I spoke of in the Iron Man 2 installment. It may be a ploy, but it’s a classic device that works. In this case, two misfits find each other in disparate, yet somehow familiar predicaments and try to help each other get out of them. The way this goes down is due to a little something called “chemistry.”

Grady and James don’t have much chemistry at the start. There’s more like this wary frustration towards one to the other, and an enervating obtuseness the other way around. Plenty of metaphors revolve around both our leads’ personalities. Heck, there’s even a not so subtle play on words regarding our characters’ names. James really is leery about everything, especially his worth as a writer. With Tobey’s eternal wide-eyed gaze, he always looks like he wish he could understand what was going on around him.

Grady’s been fumbling through life for so long now he keeps getting the way of himself by increasingly bad choices (there’s also the whole thing with his dope and his “episodes”). But over time, and with a wary understanding, some warmth develops between Tripp and Leer. They bond, and of course learn that they have a lot more in common than they thought. That and they give each other advice which turns out to save them both. Classic setup.

All of this could be just another Hollywood hackneyed story device; the whole mentor/student thing I mentioned above. What makes it work is Boys is not the story’s execution—which is done quite well for being a stock buddy/redemption tale—it’s the character interplay. This is a character study, right? So let’s talk about these weirdoes in greater depth.

Let’s poke more at Tripp’s body. Douglas has a defeated countenance a mile wide. You can even hear it in his voiceover. There’s something about this narration that enhances defeat (and no, I’m not going to yak on about that device again. You’re welcome). To be simple, Boys’ narration is unobtrusive and limited. You almost forget there is any until Tripp starts grousing again. But when his narration does speak, it has two voices. One is the writer in him—from what is said, Grady is one frustrated writer— which makes him a frustrated person. Two is the undercurrent of dissatisfaction with…everything. Nothing’s worked out for Tripp, and it’s all laid out along the path of his poor judgment. You can see it on the screen, what with every facet of his life ricocheting off of one wrong choice after another. He’s miserable, but not worthy of pity since he’s the cause of his own undoing.

Douglas is truly channeling his dad here, although Kirk would never do a film like this one. The senior Douglas played roles where he was tough but vulnerable. It was that vulnerability that made audiences get behind him. Even in his epic roles like Paths Of Glory and Spartacus (oddly, both Kubrick films, himself a master of contradicting expectations), Kirk’s characters were riddled with self-doubt and reluctant, but convincing conviction. Michael’s Professor Tripp is a lot like this paradigm, but over the course of Boys he rediscovers his conviction. It’s not there at the start. It’s blurred by self-doubt, self-delusion and (you guessed it) the ganja. How much you wanna bet he gets his sh*t together by movie’s end? It ain’t so clear for like three quarters of the film mind you.

Who is worthy of our sympathies is James. Here’s a guy, regardless of his distance and just plain creepy demeanor (or maybe because of it) who needs guidance. Someone or something to draw him out of his shell. He’s in desperate need of an “attaboy.” James is a unique pairing for Tripp. James is naïve, childlike and brooding. Grady broods, too, but fails to acknowledge his own naïveté/ignorance. However since James’ persona is so awkward and removed, he tends to put others off. Small wonder why Tripp reluctantly takes James under his wing. Actually, it’s more like James forces Grady’s hand. Not to worry, James warms up as the story progresses in an organic manner, as Grady starts to thaw in a similar fashion. It’s an uneasy alliance, to be sure, but it’s a little less contrived than the bond in Forrester was.

Other highlights of character interplay are the twin prongs of Downey’s “Crabs” and McDormand’s Sarah. Downey’s smarminess is his stock in trade. Sure, it’s pervasive in all his roles, from Weird Science to Iron Man, but when we get the right script, boom, it works wonders, slicker than snot. Crabs is smarmy, to be sure, but he wears the crap like a shield. You can tell from the beginning that he’s an insecure, anxious and frankly scared individual trying to hide something. It only becomes clear towards the end what he’s really all about. And he’s just as human as the other failing characters.

The only other major player in Boys is McDormand, and she’s probably the one with least issues. McDormand is as sincere as ever, and whenever she delivers her lines, it’s the voice of reason. Shrill, accusing reason, but reason nonetheless. Sarah might be the only individual in Boys who really gives a sh*t about Grady’s downward spiral, which sentiment is delivered in such a brusque, pointed way you might mistake her for the antagonist. But as you’ve probably gathered, this film requires patience for all the petals to open, and McDormand’s satisfying as ever delivery punctuates the story where necessary to deflate Grady’s sooty ego.

But there’s always gotta be a wild card, and Holmes fits the bill. IMHO, she’s always been about making face, not acting well. I was quite glad she was excised for The Dark Knight, to be sure. Here in Boys I couldn’t figure out the purpose of her being around. Sure, she might be Grady’s latest exploit with his wife being gone and Sarah just out of arm’s reach, but that’s barely touched on. Hannah is just like she’s the latest distraction in Tripp’s life of being rudderless. Hey Katie, making a career out of portraying willowy, barely there brunettes does not an acting CV make, no matter how much gravity you try and apply to your roles. Holmes was flat and one-note, and barring a significant reveal I was thankful for the limited screen time.

Okay. Enough with character psychology. Now it’s time for the technical stuff. Please refer to my notes on the whiteboard.

Boys is mentor/student picture to be sure, but it’s also a strange, insinuating road trip (get it?) movie. At least half of the scenes in the movie involves driving. Behind the wheel, as a passenger in the back seat, the trunk even, Grady and James are almost constantly on the move. No real destination really, just…driving. Not a very subtle metaphor for our two leads’ lives, who both engage in a lot of “car talk.” This could be symbolic of Grady ever trying to avoid the inevitable (e.g. looking in the rearview where the past lies, perchance?). You don’t even know these maybes as fact until you’re there. Is it a response to all the “car talk”? Am I looking to deeply into this? Is this installment running a little long? Is that a stain on your shorts? Yes to all of it. Now change your shorts. I don’t wanna know where you’ve been, Sunshine.

All the car scenes invite some good camera work. It’s not just in the motoring scenes, which almost totally involve Grady behind the wheel with him yammering at whoever’s riding shotgun. Boys for the most part is a very intimate movie. How the lens managed to capture said intimacy with both close-ups as well as full shots baffled me. But it worked without a hitch. I know very little about cinematography, at least how it works. But it sure worked here. In fact, I didn’t realize it as so until I started churning out this week’s accusation. I guess that’s what we’d call a pseudo “icebox moment” (refer to last week’s tirade/review of Kick-Ass, doofus).

My favorite trapping of whether a film is decent or not here by RIORI’s Standard was well-sated with Boys. The pacing was brisk, not unlike the weather with the film. It was always snow with rain with snow again in Grady and James’ world. Again, not the most subtle of metaphors, but Boys is rife with such quaint aphorisms. It’s almost cute, but never cloying, and never distracting from the drama or comedy.

The thing with the weather? Boys is cold then warm then cold again. The cycle continues in Grady’s interactions with all the players. All of it is so grey. Not dark, grey like The Cure’s Faith album (I smell beer). The atmosphere hanging over the movie is hazy, like we’re not sure where it’s all going, and at times we don’t. In truth the movie starts to lose steam in the third act. Not completely, but it does start to wander. But with all the climate allusions throughout the film, it’s not all that surprising that the sun finally comes out in the end, literally.

I’m not terribly familiar with the work of writer Michael Chabon, whose book Boys was based upon. His relatively straightforward tale interwoven with despair and optimism, paired with Hanson’s hard-wearing yet still loopy direction begs the question: “How did this book get optioned as a movie?” I credit Hanson. His even-handed execution of a tale about, let’s face it, two unsavory characters and their strife and make it come off as hopeful might be the answer. No matter how bleak and obtuse the movie gets, Hanson keeps it light enough to keep you from either pressing STOP or running to the liquor cabinet where the miracle elixir of shoddy memory awaits (I didn’t go there during the film. I was drunk before I hit PLAY. I have a Standard to maintain myself). I say Hanson possesses a verve that keeps the candle lit no matter how strong the wind.

Boys is a sturdy little film, and a lot stronger than Forrester was. It’s an unconventional redemption tale at heart, but it asks for whom? Nothing is overtly straightforward in this movie, but it is linear as it needs to be to get the general message across, even if the message gets mired in perceived hopelessness. It’s understood that Forrester was designed as a crowd pleaser for the Xmas market. Regardless of my less than savory comments about it when paired against Boys, Forrester did please me. So string me up, already). Boys was released in the dead of winter with not much sun going for it, figuratively or literally, but it’s the superior film. It’s a bittersweet film; its humor is sharper than a serpent’s tooth, as is its pathos, but in the final analysis, Boys was the more interesting movie. And despite having an almost inevitable Hollywood ending (my only real gripe, to be sure), Boys did a pretty decent job getting there.

So what have we learned? Right. Catch me on a good day.

Whew. Trying to be cheery can really take it out of you. Now where’s a puppy I can rape and kick?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Yeah, Boys is downbeat, coal black at times and occaisionally difficult to watch. But it sure as sh*t ain’t boring.


Stray Observations…

  • Hey! It’s Richard Thomas! Looks like John Boy done finished his education!
  • “You cold, James?” “Oh, a little.”
  • Editing flub at chapter five, -1.51. Watch McDormand’s arms.
  • “She’s a transvestite.” “You’re stoned.” “She’s still a transvestite.”
  • Story goes that Douglas gained 25 pounds for his character by eating lots of pizza and guzzling beer. One wonders what came first: the pot or the pizza?
  • “I’ve got tenure.”
  • What is it about moving a body?
  • Tasteful song selection in this movie. I especially liked the use of John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels.” Another driving allegory? You decide.
  • “You owe him a book, too?”
  • No matter how Douglas ages, regardless of the role, all I ever see is Jack Colton.
  • Does anyone drive a “normal” car in this movie?
  • “I guess there’s probably a story behind that.”

Next Installment…

Between you and I, Robot proliferation in modern society may lend itself to human convenience, but it also may lead to dehumanizing effects on their masters. Like murder.


 

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