Hannah Green: Grady, you know how in class you're always telling us that writers make choices?
Grady Tripp: Yeah.
Hannah Green: And even though your book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it's ... it's at times ... it's ... very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses, and the dental records, and so on. And ... I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices.
"Wonder Boys" (2000) is a movie about failing to make choices and, finally, growing up and making them. It's a funny, nuanced comedy, directed by Curtis Hanson of "L.A. Confidential" fame, with one of Michael Douglas' best performances ever. I watched it again last night and fell in love with it all over.
Based on Michael Chabon's novel, it's the story of a writer, Grady Tripp (played by Douglas), who is stuck writing his second novel. His first was a critical success and he's been working for seven years on his second. It's not that he's blocked (he doesn't believe in being blocked). It's that he can't stop. When he sits down to write, he rolls a blank sheet of paper into his typewriter and types a page number: 261. A pause, then he adds another 1 to make it 2611. As more than one person in the film notes, that's a lot of book.
Grady hasn't made any choices and now he's facing too many: his girlfriend (the chancellor of the university where he teaches, played by Frances McDormand) has announced she's pregnant (and she's also married to the head of the English department), his wife has left him and wants a divorce, his editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town and wants his book, and a prized student (James Leer, played by Tobey Maguire) wants his guidance (and can't seem to tell where life ends and his writing begins). And there's a matter of the chancellor's husband's dog, which Leer has shot when it attacked Tripp.
"Wonder Boys" is subtly funny and knowing of its subject: writers talking about, bragging about, complaining about and, occasionally, actually doing some writing. When Leer is carried out of a lecture, stoned and on the edge of vomiting, he narrates the whole event out loud ("They were going to the restroom. But would they make it in time?"). The university's WordFest event is a stinging send-up of pretentious literary confabs (Rip Torn stars as a wildly successful author who announces, at the start of his WordFest speech: "I ... am a writer.").
Michael Douglas gives what I think is the best performance of his career. He's unexpectedly funny and sad, shuffling around in a pink, chenile bathrobe, limping from a dog bite and taking the occasional hit off a joint. His life is a mess and, unlike a novel, there are no easy choices, no simple path to the final page. When his girlfriend asks what he wants to do about the baby, he hesitates. "I can't wait for you," she says. "I'm going to have to make this decision on my own."
Steve Kloves adapted Chabon's novel. He crafted a script that is funny and oddly moving. Tripp narrates the story, a device that is frowned on in modern films, but here it works, giving the film a writerly quality that is pretty much perfect. Such as this, after Torn and Downey roar off in Tripp's car:
So there it was. Somewhere in the night, a Manhattan book editor was prowling the streets of Pittsburgh; best-selling author at his side, dead dog in his trunk.
The ending is a touch too pat, but I was willing to forgive it because the rest of the movie is so great. Worth checking out.