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WONDER BOYS: Classy but listless existential privilege (2000 in Film #8)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of February 25th, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys

Nobody went to see Wonder Boys. Granted, it was the top earning box office movie of its opening weekend but the competition was slim, truly only up against John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games, a picture which itself should probably have fared better given the talent involved – Ben Affleck, a rising Charlize Theron. Wonder Boys did so poorly that Paramount re-released the film later in the year. The results were much the same.

Part of the reason analysts suggested Wonder Boys bombed was because Paramount simply had no idea how to market Curtis Hanson’s film. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times suggested the poster made Michael Douglas look like Elmer Fudd; others suggested Bonnie & Clyde’s portly Michael J. Pollard and Hanson himself plumbed for Robin Williams, still a major box office draw at this period. Douglas, however, was not known to audiences as the middle-aged, middle-class literature professor Grady Tripp, filled out with a little middle-aged spread and a semi-nihilistic sense of creative block. Dashing heroes as in Romancing the Stone, corporate snakes a la Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or sexually compromised detectives in the neo-noir stylistics of Basic Instinct, sure, but this saw Douglas wandering into waters plumbed to great acclaim by the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey in the Oscar-winning American Beauty a year earlier.

A cynic might suggest Wonder Boys is cashing in on the existential malaise of the privileged white male at a point of powerful social and cultural change, a new millennium that, as Fight Club too in 1999 suggested, offered no easy choices for the rage and sadness built into the masculine American psyche. And, arguably, Wonder Boys no doubt benefited from the success of these aforementioned pictures and helped get Hanson’s film the green light, but Wonder Boys comes from prestigious source material; the second novel of Pulizter Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, front-lined by a household name, crewed out with strong young and old character actors, and propped up by a director fresh off L.A. Confidential, one of the best films of the previous decade.

So why did Wonder Boys not capture a great deal of cinematic wonder?

You can’t easily pigeonhole what the film is, for one thing. Michael Sragow describes it as “a contemporary screwball comedy-drama with a mellow emotional tang”. To an extent, Chabon’s story is ‘a couple of days in the life’ of Tripp, a tenured professor who never quite recovered from the unexpected success of his first novel, ‘Arsonists Daughter’, a book he feels something of a fraud for writing, not quite sure how he pulled it off; feted, adored by some, including Tobey Maguire’s charge James Leer, it was a book Tripp singularly has failed to live up to in subsequent years.

Wonder Boys, then, is about an educated man of privilege caught in an existential funk about his talents as a writer, which leads to the off-screen breakdown of his long-term marriage, though he was having an affair with the Dean of his University’s wife, Sara (played by an underwritten Frances McDormand), who has also gotten pregnant *and* he chooses to sleep with his infatuated pupil, Hannah (a fresh faced Katie Holmes), while attempting to write a second book which simply eludes him. It’s a hard sell, even for someone as innately charming as Douglas. If you’re thinking this all sounds a lot like the David Duchovny-starring series Californication, which ran from 2007-2013, you’d be right; creator Tom Kapinos must have been inspired by Wonder Boys – the third season of Californation essentially repeats the plot of Wonder Boys for Duchovny’s Hank Moody, with a few variations.

In both of those examples, the central characters are designed to be appealing based on their hapless vulnerability. Grady’s voiceover drapes through Wonder Boys, providing the film an inner monologue in a similar manner to Leonardo DiCaprio’s thrill seeker Richard in The Beach, and in both examples it is a technique designed to draw us into the thought process of characters who were likely more diverse and sympathetic in the novel source material but whose indulgence can’t help but ripple across the screen.

As Hank in Californication consistently screws up his chance of having a traditional loving family because of philandering ways and privileged indulgences, so Grady is assumed to have allowed his marriage to fall apart because of his inaction. Hannah at one point cuts to this in analysing a second book he does write: “And even though you’re book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it’s… it’s at times… it’s… very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone’s horses, and the dental records, and so on. And… I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn’t make any choices. At all”.

The problem with a central character such as this is that his lack of inertia slows down the picture itself. Hanson tonally doesn’t try and replicate the haunting, edged, caustic tone of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, even if the relationship between Grady and Maguire’s James is remarkably similar to Spacey & Wes Bentley’s dynamic in that movie, instead opting for a softer, knockabout comedic tone in places. Wonder Boys feels akin to a 1970’s character piece, with Douglas as a shambolic hero in a world of literary elitism and success in affluent Pittsburgh (a creative version of Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, say), who drifts through a picture of which the entire point is to provide him purpose. “Why did you keep writing this book if you didn’t even know what it was about?” He is asked at one point. “I couldn’t stop” Grady simply replies.

Yet Wonder Boys *does* stop in places, slowing almost to a crawl, as Steve Kloves’ adapted screenplay attempts to use Leer’s personal anguish as a budding writer as a means of reflecting Grady’s own, jaded feelings of inadequacy as a writer, husband and potentially now a father. American Beauty tapped the same well with a great deal more razor-edged pathos, landing a punch Wonder Boys certainly isn’t capable of – and it’s a great deal less angry than Fight Club.

It feels more a film trapped in some kind of uncertain nether region, neither relevant nor entirely old hat by 2000, yet one that feels somewhat out of step and slightly perverse today. It again seems to be perfectly fine, as Californication later was, and Friends before it (with the plot line of Ross dating one of his students), with Grady & Hannah’s assumed sexual relationship, even if its more implied than seen. It’s a film that wants us to root for Grady’s rediscovery when at the same time it is difficult to feel sorry for or even like him, given the liberal, entitled East Coast world he inhabits.

There is a distinct feeling that Wonder Boys should be a better film than it is, and no doubt Chabon’s novel far more successfully characterises the existential moment faced by Grady Tripp, but even Hanson’s solid direction and Douglas’ admittedly compelling, and somewhat offbeat performance, cannot save Wonder Boys from a level of disappointment.

It is as listless as its main character and by the time it discovers itself, it’s too little too late.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

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