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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Wonder Boys

The best of the rest of Curtis Hanson's films was Wonder Boys, a gem from 2000 that was again based on a novel, this time by Michael Chabon. It takes a hoary cliche--the dissolute writing professor--and makes it fresh, funny, and occasionally moving. It's also one of Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire's best performances.

Douglas is a creative writing teacher at a college in Pittsburgh. His wife has just left him. He is a habitual pot smoker, and after an successful novel seven years earlier, has not written another one since, though he has over 2000 pages in the process. It is the weekend of a literary conference, and his pansexual editor (Robert Downey Jr.) arrives. He is also dealing with an extramarital affair with the school chancellor (Frances McDormand), and his very talented and very odd student (Maguire).

What makes Wonder Boys so enjoyable to watch is the great characters. When they get together there's a sense of adventure, such as when Maguire kills McDormand's dog and he and Douglas have to dispose of it somehow, or when a unusual man claims that Douglas's car is his and chases them through the streets. There really is no villain of the piece, except perhaps for Richard Thomas as McDormand's husband, who is doing a book about the "mythopoetic" nature of the marriage of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, and actually owns the coat she was married in.

The Douglas-Maguire relationship is what resonates most. Wonder Boys at its heart is a buddy film. Douglas manages to turn the cliche on its head (not being a drunk but a pothead is a start). He doesn't have writer's block--he can't stop writing. Maguire, for his part, makes a very authentic eccentric, who loves old movies and seems to be in the wrong time period (he also spins some very good yarns).

There's a few quibbles--the film really doesn't quite know what to do with Katie Holmes, who is a young but very wise student of Douglas's. But overall this is one of the best movies about writers I've seen. And like L.A. Confidential, the script (this time by Steve Kloves) knows what to cut. I read the book, and I recall something about a large snake that gets cut into segments. One dead animal was enough, I suppose.

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