At some point in our lives, we all look around and realize that despite whatever success we have, we’re surrounded by people who just seem to be more successful, more popular, more together, more with-it, and just plain happier about life—and if we’re lucky, we laugh. That’s the dilemma that Professor Grady Tripp faces—he’s a fiftyish literature teacher, slightly unkempt, freshly separated from his fourth wife, his successes years behind him and none more anywhere in sight. The affair he’s been carrying on with his supervisor’s wife has ended with her becoming pregnant. His biggest success as a novelist was seven years ago, and there’s been no follow-up. What little relief he gets comes in the form of the occasional joint smoked in the car. Tripp, unfortunately, can barely muster the energy to smile, let alone laugh.
Wonder Boys is about Tripp, and it makes us laugh even if he can’t. Like Sideways, it’s about people who feel like their chance at life has already blown past them, but it has affection for its characters instead of contempt and makes us want to know what happens to them. It features Michael Douglas as Tripp, and it’s a performance so removed from his usual high-voltage, A-type characters that I lamented him not being seen more in this mode when he was younger. See how time passes you by?
Tripp’s star student is a glum young man, James Leer (a pre-Spiderman Tobey Maguire), who writes uniformly depressing short stories that nevertheless grab Tripp’s eye. Even if the rest of the class can’t stand him, Tripp think’s he’s a contender. So does the other star student in Tripp’s class, Hannah, a confident young woman who rents out a spare room in Tripp’s house and seems to be growing closer to Leer, but it’s hard to say Leer could be close to anyone. His big hobby is memorizing Hollywood suicides, ostensibly because he’s trying to find the right one to emulate someday. Tripp feels a mixture of jealousy and kinship, not only because the kid can write extremely well, but because he knows how hard it can be just to get out of bed in the morning.
Tripp’s editor, Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) shows up to pester Tripp about his perpetually-unfinished novel, but Leer catches his eye instead: for one, Crabtree swings both ways and Leer is so directionless that any company is better than none. Leer has, as it turns out, also written a novel—written and finished it—and it’s good enough that Tripp wonders why he’s even bothering at this rate. The chancellor, Sara (Frances McDormand, ringing totally different notes here than she did in Fargo), feels more for Tripp than she does for her own husband, which is probably why she lets him go into the closet where they’ve got none other than the jacket Marilyn Monroe herself got married in.
The jacket is like a magnet for Leer, who is perpetually drawn to decadent stories of loss. He doesn’t just identify with Marilyn; he’s practically trying to transubstantiate her when he runs the sleeve through his fingers. Then—through plot complications that fall apart when described on the page—he winds up stealing the jacket and shooting Sara’s dog dead, and he and Tripp head out into the night to try and undo the damage. What unfolds from this is a long and complicated odyssey that I am not entirely sure was the movie that the opening scenes seemed to be promising us, but the odd thing is that it all fits together and rings strangely true.
There are others who serve as foils for the main characters—like Hannah (Katie Holmes), the renter in Tripp’s house. There is a remarkable scene late in the movie where she admits to having read Tripp’s perpetually unfinished novel, and falling asleep in the middle of it. This is funny, but the movie takes it a step further and has her use some of his own advice back against him as to why the book doesn’t work: “You didn’t make any choices.” True: he never chose to end the book. The mere existence of the book has become his lifeline, and to stop working on it would be suicide. The upshot of the scene is that Tripp helped her become a better writer, and also ended up putting Leer into good hands, but the one person he’s been able to do the least about is himself. It’s high time he got to work.
Wonder Boys works best when it is most knowing about its material, the peculiar orbit that writing teachers and students inhabit. The scene with Hannah is one, but there are other elements that are handled with real smarts: I liked a bit involving a pompous best-selling author who calls himself “Q” (short for Quentin, as if “Quentin” itself needed abbreviating) gassing off at a lecture about how writers need faith and inspiration, only to have Leer let out an explosive giggle in the wings. Quentin’s not a bad person, just someone who doesn’t deserve to be taken so seriously (his books appear in grocery-store racks in the film), and the movie understands this.
One of the common clichés of art is that only the spiritually wounded or psychically damaged can be true artists. It’s the Hemingways, the Bukowskis, the William S. Burroughses who write the real gold, rather than the more stable and workmanlike producers who turn out solid but less-than-transcendent work. I have trouble with this idea, because it ignores the fact that the damaged ones did their work more in spite of their damage than because of it. Tripp is a perfect example: he’s not a tormented soul, which is a nice change. He’s scruffy, soft around the edges, more willing to bend than die for his art (or for anything else, really).
This for me was what made the movie really sing: it’s one of the very few halfway honest movies about someone engaged in the messy business of creating. Tripp’s biggest problem is not that he smokes too much dope or that his book is lousy; those are the easy way out. It’s that he puts other people first, even when he knows better. He’s jealous of Leer, but helps him anyway, because he’s a teacher and the teacher puts his students’ understanding first. The movie also creates sympathy for Crabtree, who is in his own way just as washed up. He’s barely sold anything in the last few years and was counting on Tripp to bail him out—then stumbles across Leer’s book and can barely contain his glee. It’s also clear he’s not doing this just to rub it in Tripp’s face; it’s just that the kid got their firstest with the mostest this time.
Curtis Hanson (of L.A. Confidential) directed the movie, and the only thing it has in common with that film it is keen understanding of character. That helped me, in turn, understand something: the descriptions I have read of Wonder Boys seem to have trouble agreeing on what kind of movie it is. Some talk about it in terms of screwball comedy, and there’s a bunch of latter-half developments involving the dead dog and a stolen car that seem to slot it into that category. But the label really doesn’t matter. The movie has such a good sense of who these people are and what they’re doing that any plot developments would take a backseat to their personalities. Leer’s novel, by the way, is called The Love Parade, and that too would make a fitting alternate title for Wonder Boys: Funny how love always seems to be passing us by, even when we’re offered it freely.