April 10, 2003

Under the Radar

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One of the subtlest pleasures films have to offer us are those moments of recognition which cannot be anticipated and are all the more enjoyable as a result. Hearing the name of a place we’ve been to in real life spoken by a character on screen gives us a pleasant sense of somehow being included (as illogical as that may be) in the world of the movie. Even more powerful is the feeling we get when we know someone on screen. Not, obviously, in the literal or biblical sense (although I suppose both those cases would prove equally, if not more, exciting) but that we find, in their behavior or speech or manner, something of ourselves and our world. There are many reasons to see Wonder Boys, Curtis Hanson’s follow up to L.A. Confidential, but for anyone who ever has lived on or near a University campus the best reason might be that you will be deeply familiar with the characters and the increasingly odd situations in which they find themselves.

The film concerns one endless weekend in the life of author and English Prof. Grady Trip (Michael Douglas). It’s the weekend of the annual Word Fest, an event where new writers and old gather to — well, mostly it’s an excuse for people to drink and pontificate, in pretty much that order. Grady has more problems than putting up with best-selling blow-hards like Q (Rip Torn) invading his campus, however, this is also the weekend his wife chooses to leave him, his lover Sarah,(Frances McDormand, phenomenal as always) to announce her pregnancy, and Grady’s best student, James (Tobey Maguire) to kill Sarah’s husband’s (who also happens to be Grady’s chair) dog. Grady doesn’t really mind the excitement. It keeps him from thinking about the book he was supposed to have finished years ago, and the arrival of his editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), who will probably want to see it.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the unlikely chain of events and personalities, the film retains a pervasive sense of familiarity. The film takes place over one of those weekends we’ve all had, where the episodes leading into each other seem perfectly logical if you consider them in context; you’re reasonably sure you can explain how you got from there to here. If, however, someone asked you that morning where you’d be that night, never in a million years would you have given the right answer. You’d have a more than even chance of encountering any and all of these characters around campus. Grady’s the Professor who’d make an excellent teacher if he could, for five minutes, leave his own reality to join the world. James is That Kid: there’s one in every class, weird and annoying enough to be made an unofficial seminar scapegoat so that everyone else can bond.

Douglas is the best he’s ever been as Grady, intelligence buried under layers of befuddlement, gentle good humor, with a hint of self-disgust for spice. Grady has been a child prodigy all his life and now that he’s finally been forced into the position of adult he’s trying, vaguely, to mature. Maguire’s James, damaged in some nameless way, a writer who uses storytelling as protection, is the catalyst for Grady’s transformation into a functional grown-up. They are supported by a cast of characters they richly deserve: people as weird and charming and deceptive as they are. James’s best (and only) friend Hannah (Katie Holmes), is basically the only critic in a film suffused with writers. She’s learned from them to affect outward eccentricities, like her red cowboy boots, to gain acceptance to their circle, all the while maintaining her analytical eye.

The most pleasant surprise in the film, however, is Downey’s Crabtree. He seems, at first, to be a cautionary tale: the fallen, drugged out, decadent, cynical Editor — the artist’s natural enemy. There’s something more than a little sad about him. That impression only lasts until he opens his mouth. Then he reveals such a love of language and story, such a familiarity with the ways of writers that you realize his job is as much of a vocation for him as writing is for James or once was for Grady. It’s a joy to watch Terry interact with Grady. They conjure up the easy intimacy, the private jokes, which can only derive from long association, they read each other effortlessly, and most of their scenes almost have the air of comfortable routine.

That’s why it’s such a wonderful surprise to watch Terry watch James. Something that not enough films understand is that characters act differently around different people. Terry is Grady’s best friend and his sparring partner, but he’d like to be something very different to James. Terry eyes James with the lazy, interested eye of a friendly predator, and is so overt in his seduction that James is hardly aware of it. Their nascent relationship neatly encapsulates one of the film’s nicely understated themes: everyone needs someone, but no one, perhaps, more than writers. Because what one loves can be the most insidious of traps. Writers run the risk of percieving people as possible characters, of stayong aloof from life and observering instead of participating. Wonder Boys is about how two writers get pulled back into the world, too amused to struggle.

Archived article by Erica Stein