Director Curtis Hanson’s follow up to the amazing “LA Confidential” is “Wonder Boys”, a film that has the distinction of having perhaps the worst movie poster this year, if not this decade. I had to look very closely to even realize, “Oh, yeah, that IS Michæl Douglas. Why does he look so gay?” Don’t let the lame marketing for this film turn you off, this film is surprisingly enjoyable.
For a change, Michæl Douglas does not play an egotistical rich guy. He plays Grady Tripp, a bespectacled writer and professor of literature who smokes dope at every opportunity. In fact, his character is not too far from Jeff Bridges “the Dude” from “The Big Lebowski.” Grady had a hit book called “The Arsonist’s Daughter” but that was seven years ago. While others perceive him as washed up, a one-hit wonder, the truth is that he just can’t seem to finish his latest novel, now up to page 2,611. Grady is having one of those unbelievable days from hell. His wife has left him, he finds out his mistress is pregnant with his baby and finally, he’s responsible for accidentally killing his bosses’ dog. Conflicts escalate from there as he takes an interest in young student and burgeoning novelist James Leer (Tobey Maguire).
Tobey turns in another amazing performance as a confused yet emotional manboy who has a compelling way with words. Robert Downey, Jr. is also a blast as a bisexual book agent who hounds Douglas for his latest novel. Katie Holmes is also spectacular to watch mainly because she has finally grown from puberty and into a real woman. Holmes proves that she can put the subtle moves on Michæl Douglas. The focus of the story is middle-aged Douglas, but balances well with the younger cast. It’s also refreshing to see a film set in a winter environment instead of sunny LA. Hanson really captures the subtle inconveniences of living through winter as Grady battles slush, frost and cold along with all the human conflicts. It’s a small thing, I know, but it really does add to the atmosphere.
What makes the film so satisfying is that each new conflict that is introduced adds another layer to the story that actually pays off in the end. This is great cinematic storytelling and an unexpected pleasure from Curtis Hanson, whose last film was shockingly violent. In fact, the “violence” and gunplay in “Wonder Boys” is played to hysterically comic effect, a complete 180 from “LA Confidential.” Ignore the poster and catch “Wonder Boys”, you’ll be surprised.