Wonder Boys (2000)

by Jonathan Beller


Wonder Why

Hey there. If you find yourself pushing on past middle age and wondering why all your potential has only gotten you just where you are and not one iota farther, then Curtis Hanson’s new film Wonder Boys may be your sunset tonic. Telling the story of a washed-up writer easing into a relatively benign teaching career, Wonder Boys is a remarkably average movie in every respect. Script, plot editing, acting, resolution, all add up to something like the degree zero of contemporary Hollywood cinema: anything less would have made Wonder Boys noticeably poor, and anything more would have made it noticeably interesting. But like its protagonist, writer Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), Wonder Boys is perfectly satisfied to flit across the screen for a brief moment, and then fade, if not to black, then to the remainder bins at your local video store. It serves its purpose simply by keeping us in the habit of going to the movies, eminently satisfied that we have gone before and will go again. Such is the unending cycle of life — in media society, at least. The spectacle must go on.

Much like the protagonist of Mr. Holland’s Opus and those in a host of other if-you-can’t-do-teach movies, Tripp, a promising young writer of yesteryear, achieves an early success — a brush with celebrity, if you will — and then, settles into a studied mediocrity. Instead of taking his talents to the next level, Tripp somewhat reluctantly utilizes his creativity in the classrooms of an English Department, helping younger writers as they clamber towards achievement. Meanwhile, he works on his interminable second book, producing several thousand pages of wooden prose. The rest of his time is spent berating the success of his colleagues, smoking too much grass, arousing the erotic interest of his pupils, and carrying on a clandestine affair with the chancellor (Frances McDormand). If the scenario sounds like it could take place at most any university, it’s meant to. Wonder Boys portrays teachers more or less according to received opinion: mostly harmless bumblers, liberals, or eccentrics, charged with the reproduction of society. Hell, somebody’s got to do it.

cover art

Wonder Boys

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

(Paramount Pictures)

Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that Wonder Boys is one of those “succession” movies, where the father who has had his moment, passes the torch to the upstart son, and fades into the applauding audience. In the film’s economy of symbols, probably the most interesting moment is the discovery that the cuckolded chancellor’s husband (Richard Thomas), who also happens to be the chair of the English Department, has a collection of celebrity paraphernalia, which includes Marilyn Monroe’s wedding apparel. The professor is a star chaser and, though he dignifies his fetishism by writing trade books such as “The mythopoetics of the American something or other,” the message is clear: he represents academics as failed celebrities, whose best hope is to elevate their students to stardom.

The trajectories of the film’s four aging and finally unsuccessful wonder boys — these being Tripp, the English Chair, the writer Q (Rip Torn), and the literary agent (Robert Downey, Jr.) — assert that intellectual life inexorably unfolds in relation to celebrity and yet, that striving for it cheapens both the integrity of one’s pursuits as well as oneself. At the same time, the appearance of a new young man who will take the creative mantel because of genuine and unspoiled talents, authenticates the logic of celebrity and legitimates the hierarchies of the star system. It is not the fetishistic worship of celebrity that must be judged; we are to gauge the people who would contend for its accolades. It is also noteworthy here that in this film’s narrative economy, female intellectuals can only be peripheral pragmatists and fans, for in Wonder Boys’ un-self-critical conceptualization, the sole pathway to stardom for women is Marilyn’s.

Because the audience is engineered (both by the construction of this film and of films in general) to identify with the protagonist Tripp, whose current ordinariness stands in sharp contrast to his youthful promise and unrealized potential, we are also being prepared to welcome the arrival of celebrity, even if, finally, it will belong to another. Yes, the moment where Tripp’s star pupil (Tobey Maguire) receives a contract for his first novel and is bathed in the warm, slow-motion splendor of a cheering and celebrity-conferring crowd, moved even me. No one claps louder than our surrogate Tripp, who once wanted stardom most of all and who must now withdraw and be content with having made someone else a star. Not everybody can be a star, otherwise there wouldn’t be any stars and Wonder Boys depends upon those of you who saw the film to dignify that relation to the spectacle which seals your fate in anonymity.

As my editor (Cynthia Fuchs) here at PopMatters noted in her commentary on the draft of this article, “The other point is, the film actually celebrates not being a celebrity — Grady’s common life at the end appears to be the happy ending, where the viewers might identify and congratulate themselves on not being stars (except that, of course, Grady is really Michael Douglas and with Catherine Zeta Jones because he is).” This exactly expresses the contradiction to which the film expects to reconcile its audience: in patriarchal capitalist society we must fulfill our mundane and prescribed tasks and be content that our dreams are lived by others.

Instead of embracing such peripheral status in which a hallowed minority supply and live our dreams, one might ask how can the work of writers, pedagogues, and yes, even filmmakers, help to create a world in which individual successes do not depend upon widespread and general anonymity or failure? Are there other structures and/or societies one could imagine in which our (suppressed) dreams might be actualized? Could the presentation of such alternatives, or even the desire for such alternatives, work to move society in a direction beyond the mere replication of capitalist stardom?

It should be clear that the hierarchy of celebrity I have outlined parallels and indeed is an extension of the hierarchy of wealth and agency operative under capitalism — a hierarchy in which wealthy individuals gain visibility, credibility, and power through the expropriation of the labor of anonymous workers (us again). Is it possible to imagine a media-culture which did not function to expropriate audiences’ imaginations in order to build new assets in the form of celebrities, but rather functioned to empower audiences to change the world in ways that they themselves imagine? But that would be to think beyond the capitalist celebrity system, a thinking which is clearly not in Hollywood’s best interest, even if it might be in ours.

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