Wonder Boys (2000)

by Todd R. Ramlow


Wondering About Boys

Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys is very much concerned with the boys its title declares (or, rather, with a certain sort of boyish behavior). More to the point, it actually seems to wonder, as we do and as the characters do, what is to be done with them. The story follows Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), and James Leer (Tobey Maguire), as they wander around Pittsburgh for a weekend, ostensibly attending a university writing conference, ruminating on their lives, their youth (past or current), and what the future might hold for them. The film is clearly nostalgic for the stereotypical freedoms and possibilities of youth, and begins to suggest that “youth” might very well be a manner of attitude, behavior, and the refusal of “adult” responsibility, rather than a matter of lived years. Nevertheless, Wonder Boys ultimately forecloses on this suggestion, declaring that even if “boys will (and should) be boys,” grown (middle aged) men should really act their age.

Grady Tripp, celebrated novelist (thus he is the first “wonder boy” of the film’s title) and creative writing professor, has, throughout his life, steadfastly refused to give up his adolescent ways, as evidenced by his philandering, incessant pot-smoking, and inability to make any firm decision in his life. And so we find him, middle-aged, with a third wife who has just left him, a pregnant girlfriend who is the college chancellor (and whose husband is Grady’s English department chairman), and an editor (Crabtree) coming into town to check on the progress of his seven-years-in-the-writing, 2611-page, and unfinished (indeed, unfinishable) novel. Terry Crabtree is, perhaps, even more resolute in his laddish ways than Grady. Ever the party boy, always traveling with “Crabtree’s pharmacopoeia,” sexually predatory and of ambiguous sexuality, Terry finds himself quickly approaching middle age with his career in seeming shambles: he hasn’t had a literary success in some time, and his editorial position is threatened by the young Turks below him at his New York publishing house. Grady and Terry shared an often-articulated bewilderment at the passage of time, and at what has become (and not become) of their lives.

cover art

Wonder Boys

Director: Curtis Hanson
Cast: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey, Jr., Katie Holmes, Rip Torn

(Paramount Pictures)

The third side of the film’s triangle is James Leer (the new “wonder boy”). One of Grady’s students, James is largely unpopular, given to bouts of depression, possibly sexually confused, and obsessed with Hollywood suicides. He is also a promising young writer with the potential to revitalize Crabtree’s career — not to mention his sex life. Bring these three together, add excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol, one dead dog, one drag queen, and a stolen jacket Marilyn Monroe wore for her wedding to Joe DiMaggio, and you have a potentially tragic, but never boring weekend.

Several things disappoint about Wonder Boys. As in Michael Chabon’s novel, in Curtis Hanson’s film the relationships between life, writing, and the writing life are almost painfully obvious. Tripp’s sprawling and incomplete manuscript (titled, what else, “The Wonder Boys”) is the product and reflection of his inability to make any decisions in his private life, just as James Leer’s fucked-up childhood and search for love is mirrored in his novel “The Love Parade.” Um, duh. The more interesting possibility raised by the novel and the film, that our lives and the stories we tell of them may be just as “false” and just as much a narrative construction as any novel — an idea demonstrated with some ingenuity in James Leer’s excessive and constant fabulations — is, unfortunately, left largely unattended. Instead, both novel and film are content to traffic in simplistic metaphors of writing and “life.”

Furthermore, the film’s narrative feels very fragmented and rushed. Chabon’s novel is quite expansive, taking its time to give us the details of the characters’ lives and their weekend together and apart — a weekend in which many a strange and unexpected event takes place. Trying to fit in as many of the novel’s complicated events and interactions as possible (yet omitting significant subplots and minor characters), the film ends up feeling hurried, and, at times, difficult to follow.

In addition to these structural shortcomings, the film’s major disappointment is that, except for Grady Tripp, it doesn’t really know what to make of, or what to do with most of its characters, specifically its queer boys and its girls. In its focus on Tripp, the film leaves these other characters woefully less developed than we might like. We are left largely to wonder on our own about Terry Crabtree and James Leer, and particularly about the romantic/sexual relationship that develops between them. We are never really witness to any seduction, or, indeed, any particular spark of attraction between the two, yet there they are, near the end of the film, and the end of the weekend, snuggling in bed, clearly post-coital, while Terry reads the (apparently remarkable) manuscript of James’s first novel. As this cursory scene attests to, there is, in the film, for all its surface libertinage and bad boy behavior, a certain prudishness about sexual matters, or at least about complicated questions of sexuality. While Tripp’s can’t-keep-it-in-his-pants behavior is openly accepted, if not in some ways endorsed, questions about the queer sexual lives of Crabtree and Leer — as well as the drag queen Antonia Slovakia (played by Michael Cavadias, of the band Bullet), who makes a brief and intriguing appearance as Terry’s “date” early in the film — are left almost entirely unasked. There is clearly some anxiety at work here, as well as a specious (or, perhaps, phobic) “tolerance,” of the “I don’t care what they do, as long as I don’t have to see it” variety.

Although nowhere near as panicked over and repressive of its own homoerotics as Hanson’s celebrated LA Confidential, Wonder Boys allays its sexual anxieties by shuttling its queer romance off-screen, and to the margins of the story. In order to valorize a certain vision of grown-up het boyness, in Wonder Boys queer romance and sexuality must seemingly become, literally, unrepresentable. Or, if not unrepresentable, then at least displaced, or disembodied. There is a way in which the purloined jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe becomes the fetishized object of (James’) queer desire. Of course, evoking James Leer’s fascination with Hollywood suicides, and Marilyn as queer icon, the jacket is a fetish only of the most stereotypical sort — really, only Judy’s ruby slippers could have been more obvious (or odious).

Similar to its anxiety over its queer characters, Wonder Boys displays a kind of dumbfoundedness concerning its female characters. Women, we are led to believe, are a large part of Grady Tripp’s “problem” — he just can’t resist ‘em. All three of Tripp’s marriages failed due to his infidelities; he seems to always have a wife, a girlfriend on the side, and his eyes peeled for any third opportunity. In order, then, to effect his transformation, his “maturation” into responsible adulthood, the women we see must not be too sexy, too forward, indeed, too much of anything. And so, similar to the queer boys, the women in Grady’s life, for all their passion or desire for him, are strangely desexualized (or evacuated altogether: we never see his wife at all, though we catch a glimpse of her parents). Really, for a story that is supposed to be all sexy, and loose and wild, the film is, in the end, rather Victorian in attitude.

And really, amid all the sophomoric antics of the men in this film, there is, finally, not really all that much for the women to do. As Grady’s student Hannah Green, Katie Holmes turns in a fairly nuanced performance, which may be her best work to date, even if she has precious little screen time. And as Grady’s pregnant lover Sara Gaskell, Frances McDormand’s many talents are essentially wasted. All that is required of the women characters in Wonder Boys is that they act as foils to the misbehaving men, and thus they come off as sort of withdrawn and reserved, if not down right steely.

Still, for all its many disappointments, there is yet much that is enjoyable in Wonder Boys. The cast, working with, as I have suggested, a rather underdeveloped script, generally turns in fine performances. Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey, Jr. are, as usual, exceptional. The film’s send up of the writing/academic life is certainly entertaining, even though anyone inside academia could tell you it’s not really accurate (were it as crazy and sexy and the film suggests, my life would definitely be a bit more interesting).

Even so, the film’s final frustration is that its seeming celebration of boyish irresponsibility is not sustainable. Indeed, it starts to look slightly pathological, as, throughout, Grady is subject to periodic, inexplicable “fainting spells,” which (we are led to believe) are caused by his chaotic lifestyle. In the end, after the whole crazy weekend is over and the many complications in Tripp’s life have been sorted out, we see him finishing his new novel, which will be the fictionalized account of these events (and thus the second, or rather fourth, incarnation of “The Wonder Boys”). Grady Tripp, the film is suggesting, has settled down and has made the “right” decision — as do all boys who finally “grow up.”

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