Archive for the ‘Wonder Boys’ Category

68 – Wonder Boys

April 5, 2001

Grady Tripp is a washed-up author. Well, washed-up is a little harsh, perhaps, but he’s written exactly one book – five years ago. And he’s had writer’s block ever since. At present, he’s a shambling, shifty, scruffy, sloppy, disheveled college professor in the field of creative writing. In
the morning, his wife leaves him. “I lost a wife today,” he later tells his agent Crabtree (Robert Downey, Jr.). To which Crabtree responds, “You’ll find another. You always do.”

Grady has a student living at his house (she was there before the wife left, so yes, it’s platonic). Another student, James Lear (the ineffectual Tobey Maguire) is obsessed with death and can recite in alphabetical order the names of famous celebrity suicides. Then there’s Grady’s mistress, the chancellor of the college (Frances McDormand). Oh, and there’s a blind dog who hates Grady, too. And a transvestite. And so it goes.

Anyone who’s ever written something, whether they’ve been assigned to do so or just want to do it of their own volition, has at sometime or another had a problem getting started. With this review, in fact, I didn’t know where to begin. Once you get started, you’re ok. Well, Grady’s problem is quite the opposite. He has a different kind of writer’s block, you see. He has diarrhea of the mind. He’s been working on this book for five years. He has accumulated over 2,000 pages. “The ending keeps getting further and further away,” he says in voice-over narration. Grady can’t seem to finish his novel not because he can’t figure out what to write but because he can’t stop writing.

His agent, Crabtree, is in dire straits. Grady’s all he has left, and in New York the other literary agents laugh at him. He comes to Grady’s school during Word Week, an English Department-sponsored gathering designed to be a way for some of the brighter writers to sell their works to attending agents. Crabtree is a well-developed figure, too, and it seems to me that Downey Jr. was probably the wisest choice to play him. Downey Jr. turns in a magnificent, understated performance that’s the backbone of the film.

Maguire, as the critical character James, takes underplaying to a new level. He delivers his line in an almost-catatonic, droll monotone. Granted, there are several scenes in which this makes sense, but not all the time. Maguire’s mannerisms are as deep as a puddle, and this is nothing new for the so-called wunderkind. I saw him in Pleasantville and The Cider House Rules, to name a couple, and in neither was he more than mildly interesting. With that in mind, I was not disappointed in his work here.

McDormand is excellent in her brief scenes as the chancellor. She’s assuredly one of the best actresses working today, as her work here and in Almost Famous attests. She’s strong, iron-willed, charming, angry, petulant,and loving. A perfect foil for Douglas’ Grady.

And Douglas himself is a lot of fun. He’s so much the victim in here, but so much is also his own doing. He’s not a bad guy, and he tries his hardest to make things right, but as happens so often with guys in movies, what he tries fails, and what he doesn’t try haunts him.

Wonder Boys: 8