Wonder Boys is a weekend in the life of Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), an English professor with that one great book under his belt. It's not just any weekend, though; it's WordFest, a celebration of the literary tradition. What better weekend to spend stoned out of your mind, flailing around like a beached salmon?
Grady doesn't really flop and flail so much as he floats. Like most potheads, he takes life as it comes, without thinking too far ahead. Give the guy a break, he's got a lot more on his mind than WordFest. For starters, his five-year affair with the chancellor of the English department (Frances McDormand) has resulted in a pregnancy. Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), the coed to whom he "just rents a room" wants to sleep with him, and his most talented student, James Leer (Toby Maguire) has just shown up at the Chancellor's party with a blank stare and a pocket pistol.
Thinking the kid's going to off himself, Grady decides to take James upstairs to see his pregnant girlfriend's husband's prize collectable, Marilyn Monroe's fur-lined coat. But the husband's dog, a blind pitt bull, attacks Grady. Thinking fast, James shoots and kills the dog. Thus begins the plot of Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys, a sweet, slow, satisfying narrative that stays good because it focuses primarily on the characters.
There's Grady's agent, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.),who picks up a towering transvestite on the plane but then turns his attention to James Leer, "I see myself in him." There's the writer known simply as "Q" (Rip Torn) who gets a round of applause just for uttering the words, "I am a writer."
Steve Kloves had enough love for the Michael Chabon novel upon which the film is based to leave much of the dialogue intact (with some noticeable omissions, however), which explains why the dialogue is nearly a character on its own - fresh and insightful throughout.
Michael Douglas brings an unusual relaxed fatigue to Grady, that will undoubtedly be rewarded with an Oscar nomination. Hot off the set of Dawson's Creek is Katie Holmes, who has the same mix of ordinary and sexy that Natalie Wood had. Keep your eye on her. Another one to watch is Toby Maguire, who nearly steals the movie away from Michael Douglas.
Wonder Boys seems accidentally good, like a bad movie in disguise, flapping in the breeze, always threatening to blow away, were it not for the wonderful moments that keep it secured, like clothes pins. The moments are punctuated by details, and those details are what you end up remembering. Frances McDormand lighting up a cigarette just as she's saying, "I'm not going to have this baby. " Or Michael Douglas sitting in his ex-wife's bedroom at her parent's house saying how little he knew about her at the same moment he's picking up an impossibly pink and tiny phone to call the woman with whom he's been having an affair these five years.
There is something awfully sad about this world. Each character has something to say yet doesn't seem able to say it. It's as if people are constantly afflicted with writer's block, so that their lives stay stagnant. As with most things, the truth, in all of its shocking coldness, ends up being the best cure.