Director: Curtis Hanson
Starring: Michael Douglas, Toby Maguire, Robert Downey Jr., Frances McDormand
As someone who loves books and films in more or less equal measure, I've long had a special affection for Wonder Boys, a movie based on a novel in which the characters love both books and films. A curiously underrated film when it was released, it has aged very well and is definitely a film worth returning to.
Wonder Boys follows a weekend in the life of Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), who has not been having a very good time of it lately. His wife has left him, his mistress and boss Sara (Frances McDormand) is pregnant, the novel he has been writing for years is still not finished and his agent is breathing down his neck, one student (Katie Holmes) has a thing for him, and another (Toby Maguire) proves to be nothing but trouble at each and every turn, particularly when he shoots Sara's husband's dog and steals a piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabelia from him. Oh, did I mention that Sara's husband is also chair of Grady's department? Yeah. It's a shit storm.
All of the issues in Grady's life are really just a manifestation of his own personal stasis; he's stuck both in terms of his work and his life. Sara is pressuring him to make a choice about their relationship so that it's either over or evolving into more. He wants it to be more but, given his track record, that's also a prospect that scares him - the more that the relationship is, the more that he stands to lose. Likewise, his editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is pressuring him to hand over his manuscript which Grady insists isn't yet finished at over 2,000 pages. He can't stop writing even though he's lost sight of what the story is about because the idea of handing it over and then finding out that he's lost whatever it is that made his previous novel such a success is terrifying. To Grady it's better to be left out than to participate and fail and what he learns through the film is that that supposed safety is false because while you don't lose anything by not playing, you can't win anything either.
To my mind, Wonder Boys is Michael Douglas' best performance to date. The character type is really nothing new but Douglas' subdued performance hits all the right notes. The supporting cast, particularly Downey, McDormand and Maguire, are also excellent and leave me wondering how it is that this film didn't get a single acting nomination. Too much of a good thing, perhaps? Certainly, no other explanation makes sense.
Matt's Thoughts: For the most part, I liked this movie, but I took issue with a few of the characters. As usual, I think Katie Holmes could be excised from the film and it would make no difference to the plot. Also, Oola was an extremely minor character, basically a walk-on role, that was later thrust into the main spotlight for a pivotal task that could have been performed without her and her boyfriend.
The events surrounding the dean's dog were passed off as basically nothing, and I think they really could have been avoided entirely since the jacket was stolen as well. It just seemed like a way to spit in the dean's face twice to ensure that Grady would lose his job. If they wanted him to lose his job so badly, maybe they should have exposed his romantic relationship with Hannah to give Katie Holmes something to do.
That being said, I would recommend this to people if they asked about it specifically, but it probably wouldn't be the first movie to come to mind if they didn't bring it up in conversation first.