Wonder Boys (review)

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The Writer’s Life

(Best of 2000)

As a writer of all sorts of things besides movie reviews, I can attest that we writers like to think that we’re somehow removed from the world. Even while we’re going about our daily business and enjoying life, there’s a part of the writer’s brain that is squirreling everything away, subconsciously analyzing the events and the people around us. I think most writers would admit that even at their darkest hours, when they’re beyond tears and throwing themselves off a cliff is starting to look good, there’s still that detached little voice in one’s head that’s whispering, “This is great material for that book you’ve been thinking about!”

So writers end up living a dichotomy. One the one hand, we need to experience all sorts of ordinary and extraordinary things, the stuff of the ultimate nugget of writerly advice: Write what you know. On the other hand, we need to maintain a bit of separation so we can figure out what it all means and, more importantly, how to work it into a novel.
Novelist and university professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas: Wall Street, A Perfect Murder) lives that dichotomy. In the space of one snowy February weekend in Pittsburgh, his life takes a turn for the worst. His third wife has just left him, his girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant, his best student latches on to him as a sort of surrogate father, and, worst of all, his editor is coming to town to look at his latest novel — the endless one he can’t seem to stop writing. And yet Grady looks at it all as if from afar, shuffling through it all as if he doesn’t care, narrating for us the confusion that is his life with offhand if insightful casualness.

The irony of Wonder Boys is that Grady does care, a great deal, for the people around him and for himself, and this meandering, literary movie — based on a novel by Michael Chabon and directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) — is about walking the schizophrenic line of a writer’s psyche, about how writers sometimes overanalyze themselves into inaction. And it’s about how all of us, whether we write or not, create the stories of our own lives, and whether those stories are true or not doesn’t matter as long as they speak to us.

It’s the weekend of Wordfest, Grady’s university’s annual literary event for writers and wannabes. That means cocktail parties at the home of the university chancellor, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand: Almost Famous, Blood Simple), a “junkie for the printed word,” which Grady believes explains why she fell for him, an unshaven, slovenly mess on his good days. At Sara’s, Grady acquires his own little planetary system, which will orbit around him for the next few days: James Leer (Tobey Maguire: The Cider House Rules, Ride with the Devil), Grady’s student, budding literary genius, and “sole inhabitant of his own gloomy gulag”; and his editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.: Bowfinger, U.S. Marshals), visiting from New York and desperate to get his hands on Grady’s new novel, seven years in the making. James carries a gun as a good luck charm and can rattle off the details of obscure Hollywood suicides, with the serene deadpan that Maguire is patenting; Terry trades in his transvestite date for a bid at James, with the whimsically erotic energy Downey exudes effortlessly; Grady counsels James on dealing with the jealousy of lesser writers while Grady struggles with his own envy, with Douglas seeming more at ease in his own skin that he ever has before.

Wonder Boys is comfortably like spending time with friends. These are warm, messed-up, self-deprecatingly funny people, characters whose quirks and oddities make them real, who are never quirky or odd just for the sake of it. These are people for whom creativity isn’t an act any more than their breathing is conscious — the scene in which Grady, Terry, and James make up a melodramatic tale on the spot about an eccentric bar patron is the purest, truest expression of the innate love of fiction that I’ve ever seen on film.

Oh what a wonderful movie is Wonder Boys. Bitterly funny about the creative life and sharply observant of how inspiration can be both encouraged and crushed, this is one of the best movies ever about what it means to be a writer.

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