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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 02/24/2000, B: Peter Keough,

Boys don't try

Curtis Hanson wanders far from L.A.

by Peter Keough

WONDER BOYS, Directed by Curtis Hanson. Written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon. With Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, Robert Downey Jr., Richard Thomas, and Rip Torn. A Paramount Pictures release. At the Cheri, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

Only one shot is fired in Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys -- a letdown maybe after the fusillades in his L.A. Confidential, but it hits its mark. This wry, relaxed rendition of the Michael Chabon novel, a cult favorite, won't win the accolades that Hanson's 1997 neo-noir epic did: L.A. Confidential was a wonder of narrative concision (it masterfully reduced the James Ellroy novel), ensemble acting, seamy atmospherics, and Old Hollywood nostalgia. The new film is the cinematic equivalent of sleeping late on Sunday, putting on an old robe, and reading the newspaper.

Actions that mirror the state of mind of the film's hero, Grady Tripp. Played by Michael Douglas in a calculated reversal of his standard lethal-lothario persona, Grady is overweight and unshaven, with a bad haircut, glasses, and a stocking cap; he looks at times like the idiot brother played by Billy Bob Thornton in A Simple Plan. Tenuously tenured at a Pittsburgh university, Grady hasn't done anything but smoke dope and pursue women in the seven years since he won an award for a novel he wrote. His only hope is a work in progress, a novel (titled Wonder Boys in the book, though this isn't mentioned in the film) that he has no trouble writing, only finishing.

C.H. confidential

LOS ANGELES -- Some of the wonder surrounding Wonder Boys, Curtis Hanson's follow-up to the Oscar-honored and critically acclaimed L.A. Confidential, concerns why he made the picture. No dense, white-knuckle film noir featuring volatile performances, this adaptation of the Michael Chabon novel is a laid-back picaresque about academe, middle age, the creative process, and softcore drugs. Throw in a paunchy Michael Douglas wearing a woman's housecoat and it's a long way from the corruption, homicide, and heavy testosterone of L.A.

"It's funny, the biggest thrill that I had from the success of L.A. Confidential was that Billy Wilder invited me to come to his office and meet him. To a screenwriter/director Billy Wilder is like the top of Mount Olympus. I went to meet him and the first thing he said to me was, `Next you want to do a comedy, right?' I said, `You're right, how did you know?' And he said, `I've felt the same way, but you're going to have to fight to get them to let you.' And that is the blessing of having success -- that you get to have some leverage. You can either raise your fee and do what they want you to do, or you can coerce them into letting you do something that they don't particularly want to let you do."

Leverage or not, Wonder Boys would have been a hard sell had not star and co-producer Michael Douglas been interested in it. The tale of a writer and college professor unable to finish a book, it is in part a novel about writing a novel, not an easy topic to make cinematic.

"If this was just a movie about a writer struggling with writing a book and struggling with success, I wouldn't have been interested in it," says Hanson. "Movies about writers tend to not be that good. I identified with it and thought that other people would because it's about characters who are all struggling to find a human connection, to find family, to look at past problems and in some cases future success, but they are struggling with what we all struggle with only they are funnier about it, and that's what interested me."

It interested the cast, as well -- enough to get Michael Douglas to gain 25 pounds, grow his hair long and gray, and basically look like your average 50-year-old frustrated writer. "I thought, if he wants to play this part, he's going to show us both the vulnerability and the humor that we haven't seen [from him] before," says Hanson about his star. "He will be really different from what we've seen, this kind of Armani-clad cool customer who assumes control."

Control is a recurrent theme in Wonder Boys -- or at least, controlled substances are. Robert Downey Jr. is Douglas's editor, a Hunter Thompson type with a recreational drug habit. Given that Downey was sent to prison for drug-related charges shortly after the movie wrapped, did Hanson have any qualms about the film's ambiguous attitude toward that loaded subject?

"One of the things I love about the movie is the nonjudgmental acceptance of its characters and their, God knows, eccentric behavior. It's like Billy Wilder. I think the reason Billy Wilder's movies have stood up so well is that though he was called a cynic at the time he made them, I think he was more accepting of people for what they are rather than what we would like to pretend they are, and then dealing with it, in a way that's embracing."

Grady's routine of conducting workshops, cheating on his wife, filling boxes with typescript, and inhaling comes to a halt when he wakes up to find his wife gone and long-term mistress Sara (a buttoned-up Francis McDormand) -- who's also the university's chancellor and the wife of Walter (a professorial Richard Thomas), head of the English department and Grady's boss -- pregnant. Adding to the turmoil is the arrival, drug cache and transvestite in tow, of Terry Crabtree (a subdued Robert Downey Jr.), Grady's editor, who needs a salable manuscript to save his own career. And so, somehow, Grady must put aside personal chaos and finish his book.

Had Boys focused on Grady's attempts to do so, it would have ventured into deadly terrain -- it's tricky enough when a novelist writes a novel about a novelist writing a novel (Chabon's success is proportional to how often he changes the subject), but in the brutally literal medium of film, that much subjectivity puts people to sleep. Neither were the novel's more evanescent virtues of language, tone, and bewildered irony, which keep its sometimes contrived and ultimately inconsequential incidents afloat, ever likely to survive transplantation to the screen.

But Hanson knows his strengths and limitations -- rather than dwelling on the horror vacuum of writing, the heart of Grady's misery, he sums it up in one brief, hilarious visual joke involving a page number. As for the tossaway episodes that make up Grady's misadventures -- an incident involving a dead dog, the theft of Marilyn Monroe's wedding jacket -- the director breezes through them with grace and off-kilter timing, then stores them for safekeeping somewhere in the trunk of Grady's gas-guzzling vintage convertible. Like Grady in his car (and like the soundtrack, which is heavy on such '60s survivors as Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, and Buffalo Springfield), the movie tools about on the byways of regret, randiness, and jaundiced optimism.

Mostly, though, it's the cast that brings Wonder Boys to life. As Grady, Douglas achieves the hapless melancholy and droopy-drawered dignity that his character evinced in Falling Down, this time without resorting to heavy weaponry. He also provides the right degree of stoned insight, injecting lines like "I just had my hood jumped on" with the proper measure of tragic absurdity. As Grady's comrade and nemesis, Downey embodies the persistence of self-destructive desire in the face of rueful awareness. And Tobey Maguire puts in his best performance to date as the film's real wonder boy, James Leer, a student whose literary gifts are matched only by his lack of experience. That's where Grady comes in, and the pair offer a variation of the male bonding in American Beauty -- here it's the disillusioned middle-aged loser who provides the kid with the dope instead of the other way around. (A gun also figures prominently in the plot, though not so melodramatically.)

An exercise in taking it easy, Wonder Boys stumbles when it tries too hard -- a subplot involving an invented character named Vernon Hardapple is a strain (but it's even more so in the novel), and the just-say-no dénouement is a copout. Be that as it may, Hanson's film is an agreeable way to pass the time until the next masterpiece comes along.