Wonder Boys - 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 tripping Tripp!).

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 so.

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."