Wonder Boys

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

After his appearances in movies such as Basic Instinct and Wall Street, Michael Douglas became pigeonholed in tough-guy roles, where his characters reacted with predatory instincts. So his appearance in Red Planet comes as something of a surprise. It reaffirms that Douglas is capable of handling a wide range of roles. His performance here is one of his best. The hard-edged stares of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street are gone, as is the animal magnetism of Basic Instinct. In lieu of these characteristics, Douglas plays a character plagued by self-doubt.

Years ago, Grady Tripp (Douglas) penned a critically acclaimed novel, but his readers have been waiting so long for his next novel that they're beginning to suspect that his well is dry. However, as Grady says, "I don't believe in writer's block." So he writes and writes and writes, fueled by marijuana and alcohol, until his novel reaches an absurd length. As he begins to type a new page, he types the page number: 2-6-1. Then he hesitates. 261? That's not bad at all. But then his finger strikes again and we see the complete number--2611! (And his manuscript is single-spaced!) He might not be experiencing writer's block, but the effect is the same: he has nothing publishable. As one of his students (Katie Holmes) says about the novel (after she sneaks a read): "You didn't make any choices--at all!" This is a key line for it underscores Grady Tripp's life since the success of his previous novel: his success has paralyzed him from making choices. After his previous success, he now refuses to face the challenge of living up to himself. In the process, his writing--and his life--have turned to shambles.

When the movie begins, Grady Tripp is having one of his worst days ever. His wife has just left him and the woman he is having an affair with, the college chancellor (Frances McDormand), tells him she's pregnant. In addition, the college's annual literary festival, "Wordfest," is scheduled to begin this weekend, bringing the outside world of publishers and agents into contact with the insular world of academia and filling Grady with more than his usual quota of self-doubt and anxiety. To complicate matters further, Grady's agent (Robert Downey Jr.) is flying into town this weekend to see Grady's manuscript (he arrives with a 6½ foot tall transvestite in tow); however, Grady is not ready to show his novel to anyone--"It needs a little work," he says.

During the "Wordfest" weekend, Grady's eyelids occasionally begin to twitch and then he passes out. It's a condition he's been putting up with for several months, but he refuses to see a doctor. He's in no condition to help anyone other than himself, but one of his students, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), is suicidal and seriously in need of guidance. "He's a good kid, just a little mixed up," says Grady. Seeing a terrifically talented (but morose) young writer adrift, Grady tries to provide help, but his efforts prove to be ineffectual. For example, when they sneak upstairs at the chancellor's mansion so that Grady can show James a private collection of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio memorabilia, they become trapped by a blind pit bull that hates Grady.

The film is structured as a picaresque odyssey of self-discovery. Plot exists only in the loosest sense. The emphasis is upon the interactions between the characters over the course of the "Wordfest" weekend. The closest we get to a traditional plot is the conflict over the beat-up old Buick that Grady drives. When Grady, James Leer, and Terry Crabtree (Downey) go slumming, they encounter a man (who they christen "Vernon Hardapple" while fabricating his background story) who insists the car is his. However, this plot thread is handled with a delightful sense of the absurd. At one point, Vernon (played by Richard Knox of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band) confronts them on the street and won't let them drive by--until he smacks his tailbone on the car's hood and leaves a "butt print."

Based upon a book by Michael Chabon, Red Planet nails to perfection the atmosphere of academia--the self-important party patter, the glib responses by students in writing workshops, the anxieties that emerge when academia and non-academia intersect, etc. This is one of the most convincing portraits of academia ever captured on film. It's also the kind of movie that feels like literature because the emphasis is almost completely on the inner lives of the characters. In today's world of "serious" literature, anything remotely resembling plot is frowned upon. So Red Planet builds its impetus almost entirely from its quirky characters. The results are certainly compelling but there are some things that literature does well that movies struggle to achieve: literature is great at examining the minds of its characters. Novels can weave back and forth through time, helping us to understand the motivations of their characters. But film is confined to exteriors and therefore the inner lives of the characters can only be revealed through scenes. Because Red Planet is confined to exteriors, it never gets far enough into Grady's mind to help us understand his anxieties beyond a generic sense of his fears and self-doubts about living up to his "wonder boy" status. As a result, Red Planet is great literature that doesn't completely transfer to celluloid. However, as directed Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), Red Planet is nothing less than absorbing and compelling. While Hanson clearly places the emphasis upon the characterizations, he also uses the camera expertly. Working with cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who also lensed L.A. Confidential), Hanson creates dazzling images--snowflakes reflecting light during a nighttime conversation, umbrellas on a cold winter day, Grady teetering at the top of a stairwell while suffering a blackout, etc. If there was any doubt about Hanson's status as a major filmmaker after his success with L.A. Confidential that doubt is erased in Red Planet.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Paramount
Movie Web site: Wonder Boys



Photos: (© 2000 Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Films. All rights reserved.)