Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the underrated wisdom and charm of ‘Wonder Boys.’
It’s probably fitting that director Curtis Hanson’s movie about a once-bright talent struggling and failing to recapture that success followed his critical and commercial hit, L.A. Confidential, only to die a fast death in theaters… not once, but twice. Wonder Boys opened wide in late February 2000 and received a rare second chance with a smaller roll-out nine months later, but audiences ignored it both times. Its life on home video has been equally uneventful, and fifteen years later the movie’s still not available on Blu-ray.
It’s a shame as the film is a sharply observant tale about moving forward with purpose that delivers wit, warmth, and stellar performances from one hell of a cast. If only audiences knew then that it starred a future Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Ant-Man…
Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) teaches Creative Writing at a Pittsburgh university, but even as he’s tasked with shaping young minds it’s his own that’s most in need of help. His wife has just left him – a timely retreat as Grady is in love and having an affair with the married chancellor, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), who’s just informed him that she’s pregnant with his child – but his greatest stress comes from trying to write a follow-up novel to a prior success from seven years ago. The trouble isn’t writer’s block – the trouble is that he can’t stop writing – and 2600 pages in he’s no closer to an ending.
The next three days see the various threads of his stagnant life and career intertwining as his personal travails crash into his professional crises. James Leer (Tobey Maguire), his most promising student, is emotionally troubled and prone to telling lies – unfortunately, “You’re mad because I shot your girlfriend’s dog!” isn’t one of them – but he also may have completed a great first novel. Another talented student, Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), is renting a room in Grady’s home and nurturing a crush on her mentor – a crush that may only be cured with a look at his rambling tome-in-progress. Also entering the weekend mix is Grady’s editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), who arrives in town for a literary festival and to check up on his writer’s progress in the hope that Grady has a career-saving novel awaiting him.
Wonder Boys is most interested in the idea of finding our way from here to there – from where we are to where we want to be – and it’s a trip the pot-smoking Grady has been on for far too long. He’s a likable, laid-back professor whose actions, like his writing, see him constantly in motion but stuck in place all the same. As Hannah points out to him after reading his new manuscript, he’s not making right or wrong choices with his narrative path – he’s making no choices at all.
Hanson plants visual reminders of the idea throughout the film in the form of bridges – one of the reasons why Pittsburgh is the ideal setting for the tale – with the most potent coming when Grady is asked point blank why he kept writing even as he had no clear idea what his book was even about. “I couldn’t stop,” he replies, as they pass beneath one of the city’s bridges framing both the ‘here’ and the ‘there’ within the car’s rear window. He yearns to reach the other side with his book, with Sara, with life in general, but again and again he’s failed to make the turns – the choices – required to get him there.
While the film features emotional turmoil, infidelity, and a blind, disagreeable mutt that takes “two to the chest” it’s never less than a warm, smile-inducing comedy. There’s conflict and growth here, but the tone and performances help keep the air light even as events go awry for poor Grady.
Douglas’ career in the late ’80s through the late ’90s saw him playing a series of morally suspect men who made their own bed and then had sex with other women in it. His protagonists were rarely all that likable, but here he’s allowed to relax and display a softer humanity that puts us immediately on his side. Maguire’s moody young adult could easily have slipped into cliche, but there’s a spark in his eyes and an energy in the way his glance darts about in an attempt to gauge how well his lies are landing. Downey Jr. was at the height of his personal troubles when he was cast – he was on his best behavior during production only to return to Los Angeles and immediately violate his parole – but he’s yet another burst of life here responsible for many of the film’s laughs. He allows a glimpse of Terry’s desperation behind a boundless and playful vitality.
The two lead females feel secondary at times to the men – it’s called Wonder Boys after all – but both Holmes and McDormand make the most of their characters and give memorable performances. Holmes is tasked with a role that some might easily dismiss, but she convinces in both her affection for the Grady she sees on a pedestal and her ultimate disappointment in the real man. McDormand meanwhile is terrific, touching, and aware as a woman uninterested in waiting for her man to get his shit together. She’s the ultimate impetus behind Grady’s overdue realization – it’s not success or writing that pulls his grizzled, bathrobe-clad body from the edge… it’s love, and her firecracker performance makes it easy to see what draws him to her.
Screenwriter Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys) was coaxed out of retirement to adapt Michael Chabon’s novel – so Harry Potter fans owe this film a watch at the very least as he went on to script all seven in the series – and he manages a rare feat in including narration that never feels intrusive or out of place. Grady’s observations on his own life are the words of a writer who knows both his own strengths and weaknesses. As he says in an attempt to explain why Sara loves him back, “ She was a junkie for the printed word. And lucky for me, I manufactured her drug of choice.” That idealized dialogue is reserved for Grady’s voice-overs while his actual interactions see him meandering verbally just as he’s been doing with his never-ending novel.
It’s far from a madcap romp, but Kloves keeps the film moving – with purpose – even as obstacles and diversions enter the fray. A recurring subplot involving the revelation that Grady’s recently acquired car may have been stolen from someone else provides action and laughs, but it’s also befitting of the film’s theme. A car is meant to bring you from place to place, and Grady’s been trying to get from here to there in someone else’s ride.
Grady is the central “wonder boy” here, but the idea of someone who once shined bright only to see that sheen fade over time no matter what they tried to recover it is a universal idea. It just as easily refers to Grady’s failed marriage, to Terry’s own career troubles, and to the city of Pittsburgh itself. There’s no guarantee in life of success, but there’s also no limitation on the number of successes we can achieve. Wonder Boys suggests that what comes after, or even in between, might be just as worthwhile.
And yes, Hanson did move on from this commercial misfire to direct 8 Mile, his biggest hit yet.
“Nobody teaches a writer anything. You tell ’em what you know. You tell ’em to find their voice and stay with it. You tell the ones that have it to keep at it. You tell the ones that don’t have it to keep at it too because that’s the only way they’re gonna get to where they’re going. Of course, it does help if you know where you wanna go.”