|THE WONDER BOYS (2000)|
Robert Downey Jr.
|"She was a junkie for the printed word. Lucky for me, I manufactured her drug of choice."|
|Time: 112 mins.|
Won Academy Award for Best Song. Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing.
Though I'm a big fan of Curtis Hanson's last star-filled opus L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, my verdict is still out on WONDER BOYS. I initially wondered why this film would be so hard to market. That is until I sat through it. This film begins like an average movie about teachers and students, writers and editors, married men and their lovers, and turns into something all together different a movie that defies definition and explores every possible emotion. It's more funny than sad, but the subject matter is somewhat dark and unpredictable. Every character in the film is flying blind and you are taken on quite a ride. I have a feeling, like CIDER HOUSE RULES, that I would've enjoyed the book better, however, if you like movies that surprise you, you'll probably really like this film. It's as opposite as can be from L.A. CONFIDENTIAL in matters of plot and story, but it's just as character driven and stylistic.
The events of the film take place over one intense weekend where the walls that famous writer Grady Tripp (Douglas) have shored up around his live come crashing down. After the publication of his first novel, Grady became an overnight success. However, it's now seven years later and though he has a good job teaching at a well-known university, everyone in the world seems to be waiting for his next book, which he can't seem to stop writing. Crabtree (Downey), his editor, who road to publishing success on Tripp's coattails is in a bit of a jam himself. If he doesn't find another blockbuster his career will soon be over, much like Tripp's. Not the most stable of men, his idea of helping Tripp is to throw parties and pick up strange men. As annoying as Crabtree is, the issues he brings to the table are nothing compared to the double whammy Tripp receives in the love department. In the morning, his third wife leaves him. In the evening, his girlfriend Sara (McDormand), who also happens to be the university's chancellor and married to the head of the English department, tells him she's pregnant.
Though he loves Sara, Tripp is overwhelmed by the news and doesn't know what to say, which is exactly the response Sara was expecting. He may be the love of her life, but Sara is not going to wait around for Tripp to make up his mind because she's well aware of his shortcomings in the tough decision department. Last but not least, the character who forces Tripp to finally figure out what he wants from his life James Leer (Maguire). James is a student of Tripp's who's extremely talented, yet completely closed off to the world. Tripp tries to get him to open up and take a bite out of life. However, one should be careful what one wishes for. James quickly becomes more than Tripp wants to deal with or can ultimately handle at this delicate juncture in his life. Yet, he can't just let James' talent go to ruin. It's through this journey, helping James to achieve his own "wonder boy" status, that Tripp learns his own lesson about what is crucial to his life and future. I can't say I was surprised by the ending, but I wasn't disappointed either.
Lest you think this is a dark and dreary tale about self-discovery...think again. The weekend experienced by Tripp in this film is one of those that will either drive a man crazy or fling him on the path to success. There is no in between. Every decision he makes, makes his situation worse. If it were me, I just would have refused to get out of bed after a while. The great thing for the audience is, all the events are perfectly plausible and utterly funny, as long as they're happening to somebody else. It's unlikely anyone would ever experience a weekend quite as crisis-filled, but you never know. As it turns out, every wrong decision he makes, eventually helps build into the right one. Douglas actually gives an amazing performance as Tripp. Definitely his most interesting and enjoyable in years. Tripp is obviously a decent, intelligent person, yet like most of us, he's incapable of choosing what's best for himself, forcing his life onto the path his mind has laid out for him, instead of listening to his heart.
This is a flesh and blood character filled with talent, fear and self-doubt and it's all apparent in Douglas' eyes and physical demeanor. He's not always my favorite actor, but he does a great job here. His compatriot of self-doubt and fear is James Leer. Maguire is definitely one of the best actors of his generation and if this performance is any indication, he'll be one to watch for many years to come. James could've been just another angst-filled loser, but Maguire gives him heart and soul. The only thing I can say about Frances McDormand is she gets better and better with each performance. I am now to the point where I will try to see anything she's in. She's both tough and tender in this film, a strong woman without all the answers. Downey Jr. is good as always, but I'd like to see him try to play someone a bit more normal. See what he can do with a role that has some depth and true character development again.
WONDER BOYS is not your traditional dramedy, so unless you're looking for something unusual, you probably will not like this film. Hell, I'm still not sure whether I did, but I have to applaud Hanson, his cast and crew for dreaming up a slice of life not many of us will encounter. This is a first-class effort and it's definitely worth the time. It's not always a fun ride, but it's never boring either.