Wonder Boys (2000) [Review Re-View]
Originally released February 25, 2000:
A rather warm but ultimately meandering tale of Michael Douglas as a college professor going through one crisis after another, Tobey Maguire as a creepy kid (again?!), and Robert Downey Jr. as an editor who seems to have a taste for transvestites. Though likable, Wonder Boys goes nowhere and nowhere slow. It carries the feel of a novel that was never intended to be brought onto the screen because of what it would lose in transition and it does. Douglas’ performance is sincere and syrupy but Wonder Boys is not a night out on the town.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
This was another film that I was curious to revisit because I was wondering whether or not I would find more of value than when I was 17-years-old and seeing Wonder Boys at a rare promotional screening with my good pals Kevin Lowe and Natalia Riviera (I recall none of us being particularly taken with the movie). It’s based upon an acclaimed book by Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), starring the eventual first big screen Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the first Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). It was director Curtis Hanson’s follow-up from his 1997 masterpiece, L.A. Confidential. The screenwriter, Steven Kloves, would go on to adapt every Harry Potter movie minus one. The studio even re-released the movie later in the fall of 2000 under new more ensemble-focused marketing to push for awards consideration (to my surprise, it was nominated for three Oscars: Editing, Adapted Screenplay, and winning Best Song for a craggy Bob Dylan tune). Maybe my indifferent review earlier was just a young man unable to connect with this brand of middle-class ennui. Now two decades later I can finally say… I still don’t connect with this ennui.
Wonder Boys is one of those shaggy dog stories where it’s not so much the destination but the journey, so you better enjoy the characters or else it will feel like a long ride. The problem with this story is that its protagonist feels so self-pitying and yet the universe seems designed to cheer him up. Grady Tripp (Douglas) is a celebrated creative writing professor just going through his days in a pot-fueled haze to dull the pressure of living up to his big breakout novel. It’s been over seven years and his next novel has no end in sight, already clocking over 2000 pages. Grady thinks he’s a has-been but every other character in this tiny bourgeois universe tells him how great he is. His publisher (Downey Jr.) is eager to peek at Grady’s next surefire literary hit. His students adore him and hang on his every word. He has multiple women throwing themselves at him, including McDormand, who wants to have his baby, and Holmes as his infatuated student/boarder. Everyone tells him how great he is as a writer. James Leer (Maguire) confesses that it was Grady’s book that inspired him to even be a writer, and he seems poised to become a great one. It’s exhausting for every other significant character to proclaim repeatedly how great our lead is and to have him repeatedly respond, “Yeah, but I just don’t know, you guys.”
Self-doubt is already relatable enough, on top of imposter syndrome for an artist or even just an adult, so the material is there for an introspective story about the struggles of creativity and responsibility, but that’s not what Wonder Boys presents as a movie. It’s filled with zany mishaps to fill up those meandering two hours. There’s Downey Jr. and his wandering eye, first with a trans women and then with James. There’s a man incorrectly labeled “Vernon” who stalks Grady demanding what he says is his car back. There’s also a dead dog that gets carried around for almost the entire movie, even though the plot covers days and it would seem like a very bad idea to continue hauling a decaying animal in one’s car. There’s no real reason why this dog’s corpse is even held onto. It belongs to Grady’s boss, the chair of the English department, and the husband to his mistress (McDormand). Why not dispose of the evidence especially with the personal connections? It’s yet one of several signs of the movie trying to be quirky and edgy over the consequences of character actions. Much of the plot beats follow retrieving a stolen coat once owned by Marilyn Monroe. Does the coat represent something of time gone by? A promise never fully able to be fulfilled? America’s innocence? Does it even matter? If Wonder Boys was going to explore the inner turpitude of Grady, why does the movie need so many dead ends and loping storylines as a means of distraction?
It’s not a terrible viewing experience but it feels like the movie is definitely missing material that made the book so effective. As I stated in my early and remarkably on-point review in 2000, it feels like a novel that would lose its appeal in translation and it has. The plot is treading water until Grady finally makes a big personal decision at the very end. He even gets a happy ending where his next great book is the recollections of the film’s events. The many supporting characters are not as interesting as the actors might make them appear. Even Maguire’s wonderkid writer, where the title is derived from, is a walking awkward quirk machine, an early representation of an autistic student before many of the characteristics were wider recognized. He provides a detached sense of comedy with his bluntly direct approach, like his encyclopedic knowledge of famous Hollywood suicides (fun fact: the home video versions edited out Alan Ladd’s name at request from his family estate). The problem with James as a character is he’s meant to represent promise to Grady, further compounding his sense of inadequacy. He’s the shiny new up-and-coming talent headed for great headlines, the kind Grady might have enjoyed but might now be too far in the rear view mirror. James has his own mini-arc of “cutting loose” but he wasn’t tightly wound from the start, just antisocial and aloof. He’s a symbol by design and an impenetrable autistic mumbly sidekick for offhand comedy observations, not so much a person.
Curtis Hanson’s direction is fine, the acting is fine, and even when relatively uninspired, the story is fine as it meanders and goes in self-defeating circles. It’s a movie that I think will be more remembered for weird little trivia, like a scene where future Iron Man and Spider-Man are in bed together. I don’t regret re-watching Wonder Boys but I didn’t get much more out of the experience than when I was 17. The main character is hard to fully embrace, especially his self-pitying problems of middle-class privilege, and the story is more a collection of chapter-based anecdotes and hasty character resolutions. Even if the two hours is amiable enough, it’s hard to connect with the characters and their conflicts, and it’s a prime example of an adaptation that can’t replicate its specific authorial charms. If I were 17 again, I’d make a pun on the word “wonder” but I’ll refrain. After all, I’ve grown.
Re-View Grade: C+
Posted on May 23, 2020, in 2000 Movies, Review Re-View and tagged alan tudyk, book, college, curtis hanson, drama, frances mcdormand, katie holmes, michael douglas, rip torn, robert downey jr., tobey maguire, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.
Interesting review: I always felt that Wonderboys failed to make writing a big-screen enetertainemt, and reading your review, maybe I was right after all; used to reading glowing reviews of this film, so I’m happy to find someone else underwhelmed too! Thanks!
Glad to find another who can’t quite understand the love for this movie.
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