As the novelist and creative-writing professor Grady Tripp in the terrific new comedy Wonder Boys, Michael Douglas has a shaggy, scraggly look, as if he’d spent way too many nights fully dressed in a sleeping bag. Who would believe Douglas could look like a blood brother to Michael J. Pollard? Grady’s dishevelment isn’t the affectation of a prima donna scribe. It’s just the way he is. He’s a rarity in his circumscribed world of bookish academia – a man without vanity. Tenured at a Pittsburgh university, with one award-winning novel behind him and nothing published in the seven years since, Grady has seen his authorial life and his real life blur into a muddle. He has no trouble writing; he has trouble not writing. The voluminous single-spaced pages for his new novel are heaped about his home, with no end in sight. His life, like his manuscript, is an unedited digression. And yet Grady the wayfarer is bemused enough to realize that maybe his life isn’t just the raw material for his art but the artwork itself.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen another American comedy that mixed rue and slapstick and sentiment in quite this way. Curtis Hanson, who directed from a delicately rendered script by Steve Kloves based on the 1995 novel by Michael Chabon, is the artist Grady would be if he were able to pare things down and make each detail count. There’s a richness of tone, of emotion, in this film; the imbroglio of Grady’s life is rendered lucidly and lyrically. The film begins with the revelation that Grady’s wife has left him that morning and goes on from there to his sodden, heartfelt attempts to convince his pregnant lover, the university’s married chancellor (Frances McDormand), that she was always his first choice. The film’s long wintry weekend is improbably magical; it seems to be taking place inside a snow globe that’s been shaken up, with the lives of its inhabitants as flurried as the falling flakes.
Wonder Boys is a shaggy-dog story that is also a coming-of-age story. (The soundtrack, with artists like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, gives that shagginess a pedigree.) It doesn’t matter that Grady is coming of age at 50 – he’s a late bloomer. The film’s biggest jest is that, when it comes to emotional maturity, age doesn’t matter; if anything, the students that we are introduced to are more grounded than the adults. The notion that we understand who we truly are as we get older is a canard that Hanson mirthfully, and mercifully, explodes. The screw-ups in town cut across all age barriers. And yet, as ramshackle and addled as these people are, they are all, without their full awareness, searching for purpose in their lives. The search itself is funny, but the longing that propels it goes very deep.
Grady’s most gifted student, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), seems at first to be a prize creepo, but his steady-state stare and odd, pinched comportment provide him with a tactical advantage in the human comedy; he puts everybody else off guard. Maguire gives James the “choked little powder-soft voice” that Chabon described in the novel, and it’s a marvelous instrument. James is a junior con man who lies about his past and a lot more, but he’s also an original. Unlike Grady, whose celebrated novel made James want to be a writer, he’s actually completed the book he’s been working on; and according to Grady’s editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), who shows up with a transvestite consort (Michael Cavadias) in tow to attend the annual campus literary weekend, it’s remarkable.
One of the beautiful things about Wonder Boys is the way Hanson lets the relationship between Grady and James find its own level; the former phenom takes under his broken wing the imminent one, and there’s a wistfulness in the gesture. Grady’s exasperated, prideful connection to James mimics the rituals of fatherhood. Grady sees in James the peculiarity he favors in himself, and he plays on it. James starts out not wanting to lose control of his emotions, but Grady, who likes his weed and has periodic blackout spells, shows him, by his own example, another way to live. They have a contrapuntal, moonstruck comradeship.
This film that does so much to heckle the literary life is nevertheless high on the excesses of that life. It’s a movie in love with words and the textures of words, and what they might mean for the people who live by them. Hanson captures the preening pretensions of academia, the rivalries between the professors and the populist, best-selling interlopers; he reveals the skid marks on the tenure track. The academics and writers that we see are tweaked by their chosen métier. They know that being in and of the world of books gives them dispensation to be madcap. They become their own best protagonists.
The cast is superb across the board, but at the center of it all is Michael Douglas, who has never seemed as relaxed and generous. His Grady is a counterculture artifact, more holdout than sellout. The marijuana fumes he swathes himself in are like incense; they perfume his disappointments. Grady fears that his books, maybe all books, don’t mean anything to anybody anymore, and for all his blurriness, it’s a legitimate fear. But he gropes his way to higher ground by the end. He discovers that his writing isn’t all that he is, and, of course, he becomes a better writer for it.