- rated - TEPID
Looks good on paper, but...
Once I heard a thing or two about Wonder Boys, I decided I wanted to
see it as soon as possible. On paper, it had all the signs of a
terrific little film. It is directed by Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential
(1997)), stars a non-glamorous Michael Douglas acting his age (that I
had to see), and has a few of the actors I like - Robert Downey Junior,
Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire and Rip Torn in supporting roles. It
was looking good.
But. I should have known. The director, Curtis Hanson, was here in
Australia for the premiere. Wonder Why?
This is quite a deceptive film. It makes you think it is profound and
cleverly scripted, but then it presents you with a whole lot of
clichés about writing and writers. There's Michael Douglas,
conscientiously impersonating a "writer" - stubble, spectacles on end
of nose, rumpled hair, crumpled clothes (wearing a scarf indoors), and
pink chenille dressing gown (Hey! Eccentric!). Is this a kid's idea of
a writer, or a writer's romanticised self-image? Hang on, instead of a
pipe, Douglas's character, Grady Tripp, smokes dope (Hey! Hip! A
Is this woebegone character of Douglas's attempt at an Oscar? And has
he chosen Curtis Hanson to get him there? Will it work? I don't think
Wonder Boys is a movie that tries to be American Beauty by way of the
Coen Brothers (The Big Lebowski, say) and ends up as neither. But
because it tries so hard for those effects, it ends up with no real
feel of its own. All the characters - except perhaps Frances
McDormand's Sara Gaskin feel "made up." They are all quirky, weird or
stereotyped. They're like an excuse for clever writing (and there is
plenty of that, which is the good news). But they don't really seem to
exist in their own right.
The direction and editing is a bit schizophrenic. I liked the way that
things happened in the film in a jumbled sort of way - Grady has to
deal with everything at once, or in the wrong order, because that's the
way they happen in real life. But then the film seems very sluggish in
the many "wacky" comedy scenes. "Don't laugh too much," the director
seems to tell us, "or you might miss the clever point we're making",.
This message is reinforced by its gloomily beautiful setting in
Philadelphia. Dante Spinotti's cinematography makes the most of the
richly atmospheric Carnegie-Mellon University, and there's nearly as
much weather on show as there was in The Perfect Storm.
In fact, between the weather, the direction, Douglas's subdued
performance, and Tobey Maguire's attempt to pare back his acting, -
even his presence - so far that it's barely there, there's just too
much lugubriousness in Wonder Boys. So Robert Downey Junior's energetic
performance comes as a breath of fresh air. "Take us back to New York,
Robert" I kept praying. I want to see your publishing company.
The other breath of fresh air here is the music. A wonderful soundtrack
of unexpected songs (including new ones by Bob Dylan) does a lot to
brighten things up, and shake us up a bit. I was grateful for it.
And as for the "clever" script: I made a few notes in the dark at the
theatre, but when I read it back today it didn't seem half so clever.
"His heart kept beating only out of habit." "Nobody reads anything any
more anyhow." "But you got to know what it was about. Otherwise why
were you writing it?" They don't seem quite as clever out in the light.
But I did like the ending. After a lot of talk about people needing to
be rescued - never mind from what, it ends Just like this review. By
selecting the option "SAVE."