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‘Wonder Boys’ is one of my favourite underappreciated movies. It’s an interesting film that explores the relationship between life and creative expression. Michael Douglas stars as Grady, a writer who moonlights as a literature professor at a university. He found success early in his life and his first book achieved commercial and critical acclaim.
Now however he’s struggling with his follow up novel and for the last seven years hasn’t written anything worthwhile. The narrative unfolds just like it would in a book and the characters are verbose, some may think pretentious, and they all tell stories. But the actors do a good job with the heavy material – Tobey Maguire plays a young existential writer, Katie Holmes stars as a quick witted and clever English student, and Robert Downey Jr is excellent as a literary agent who enjoys the company of transsexual women.
The best part about ‘Wonder Boys’ is its storytelling choices, and there are some funny moments highlighted by clever narrative devices. Developed from a novel of the same name, written by Michael Chabon, the literary source material shines through. This is a specific sort of film, one that is steeped in the tropes and conventions of telling a novelistic story.
Of course it’s adapted well for cinema too. The screenplay captures the characters from Chabon’s novel, and Curtis Hanson adds some distinctive filmic touches in the process. The use of music is powerful throughout the film, and several notable musicians appear on the soundtrack including John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young.
There are some poignant visual moments throughout the film but one in particular springs to mind. Grady’s book, over 2,000 pages single spaced, spills from his open car door and the wind catches the paper and scatters it. It’s a sad moment filled with potential squandered. Grady can’t reassemble the pieces and loses his book. The moment speaks volumes and little needs to be said.
One of the flaws of ‘Wonder Boys’ is its over reliance on literary tropes. For non-writers this could come across as off-putting. It’s an arrogant sort of story, with pretentious characters. But that’s also something that comes with the territory. Writers have to be self-assured and confident that the story they’re telling is worth writing down.
This conflict between good and bad writing is mirrored in the relationship between Grady and James (Maguire). It’s a tussle between the old mentor type, and the young aspiring writer who looks set to surpass his teacher. For Grady this is an uncomfortable realisation but it’s also fitting – time is cyclical, as are experiences.
There’s something about literature that suffers when it’s translated into film. Book readers rely far more heavily on their imagination to paint pictures of the characters and events that transpire. Watching ‘Wonder Boys’ as a film is to see Chabon’s book through the eyes of director Curtis Hanson.
The opening moment of the film establish quickly the type of story that it will be. Grady reads from one of James’ short stories, his audience is his class of college students. Compositionally, the shot slowly comes into focus and we see rain and a piece of paper. There’s immediacy to this moment, a point raised about the ability of a story to transcend its context, and to provoke emotion and discussion in the audience.
I also feel that there’s a tint of ‘The Big Lebowski’ to Hanson’s film. The opening track is a Dylan one, ‘Things have Changed’ instead of ‘The Man in Me, and although it’s a touch overt it adds to the sense that language is important in this film – both internally and in a meta sense too. Grady also smokes pot, wanders around in a self-induced daze, and wears a bathrobe when at home.
Michael Douglas is the main attraction in ‘Wonder Boys’. His performance as Grady is reminiscent of Jeff Daniels in ‘The Squid and the Whale’ but there’s a gentler core to his character. He cares about his students and he isn’t bitter about his life. He opts for drugged escapism instead.
‘Wonder Boys’ tells the story of a weekend in a middle aged man’s life. It’s one of the best underrated comedy movies and it explores the choices that Grady has made, and where they’ve left him. Time hasn’t exactly been kind, but it hasn’t been cruel either.
This is a character driven film and it’s all the better for its great casting choices and clever dialogue. It’s a tale of literary greatness, the moments where writers say something that transcends, contrasted with the boredom, and the weight of the day to day. Time takes its toll, writing takes patience, but life just happens.
Do you think ‘Wonder Boys’ is one of the great underrated movies?
Let me know with a comment below.