Rated R - Running Time: 1:52 - Released 2/25/00

A pistol. A backpack. A dead dog. An unfinished manuscript. A jacket once worn by Marylin Monroe. These are the kinds of things one might find written on little slips of paper at a writer's workshop, that the professor might ask his students to incorporate into a short story. They all play an integral part in Curtis Hanson's wonderful Wonder Boys, based on the novel by Michael Chabon and adapted for the screen by Steven Kloves. Under Hanson's (L.A. Confidential) watchful eye, Wonder Boys blends memorable characters, impossible situations, and all the objects mentioned into a cohesive whole, with engaging performances by Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, and Robert Downey Jr.

Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a slovenly Pittsburgh English professor who has had one successful novel to date, but has not produced anything significant lately except a propensity for seizures and a dependence on marijuana. He is working on his second book but has put it aside, although he receives constant pressure from his bisexual New York editor, Terry Crabtree (Downey), to finish it. But Grady has other things on his mind: his wife is leaving him, he is having an affair with the university's married chancellor, Sara Gaskell (McDormand), and Sara has just told him she is pregnant with his child. In addition to this, he has two students vying for his attentions. One is the brooding James Leer (Maguire), who writes excellent fiction about the dark horrors of his dysfunctional family and his abusive upbringing. The other is Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), an attractive, intelligent coed who worships Grady for his previous novel. The trouble starts at WordFest, the university's annual writer's conference, where the accidental killing of a pet named "Poe" sets in motion a bizarre sequence of events leading Grady to examine his life with the harsh eye of a literary critic.

This is an author's story in more ways than one. In spite of the complexity of the plot, there exists the attention to detail that is a writer's stock in trade, but which must often be sacrificed in films for the sake of brevity. The characters are delineated by the kind of pidgeonholing that, while not absolutely representational of life, shows the writer's subjective point of view. I often complain of characters not being believable; in this case, their lack of conventional realism is not because of a failure on the writers' parts, but because they are an intentional parody on human nature, a fantastic experiment in the minds of Chabon and Kloves, realized by Hanson's vision.

Douglas is exquisitely subtle in this film; I love it when he takes time out from playing wealthy, power-hungry jerks to craft a real character, and this one is not an easy creation. We must sympathize with Grady and at the same time abhor him for his treatment of himself and others. It is said several times in the text that he is not "there for" someone. In this way he abuses those closest to him, and he pays for his negligence when they all abuse him back, each in his or her own way. Hanson's choices in directing McDormand, Downey, and Maguire are fascinating — James, Terry, and Sarah appear as Grady sees them, like characters in a book, the necessary creations of a writer for narrative purposes.

Wonder Boys suffers occasionally from a diffusion of sorts, as the multitude of subplots must sometimes be neglected in favor of one another. But this is a minor flaw in an otherwise clever, intelligent literary experience. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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