This weekend I re-watched Wonder Boys, the 2001 film adaption of Michael Chabon’s novel. It’s a movie that is definitely one of my favorites of all time, but somehow I always forget how good it is until I watch it again. Directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) and adapted for the screen by Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys), Wonder Boys stars Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey, Jr., and Katie Holmes. It’s a rare film in that it is equally poignant and hilarious, and impossible to compare to anything else.
Douglas plays Grady Tripp, an aging novelist, pothead, and college professor in Pittsburgh whose wife has just left him. Grady received some relative fame seven years earlier for his first novel, and has been toiling ever since on a seemingly endless second work.
A party serves as the catalyst for the wackiness that ensues. Grady’s wild editor (Downey, Jr.) crashes the party with his transvestite date, eager to see Tripp’s new novel. Grady’s young student and tenant (Holmes) throws herself at him at every opportunity. Grady’s mistress (McDormand) – who also happens to be the college chancellor as well as the wife of Grady’s boss – informs him that she is pregnant. And another student, the talented and seemingly suicidal James Leer (Tobey Maguire), creates a world of chaos when he rescues Grady from the Chancellor’s vicious dog by shooting it and then steals a jacket that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe.
My personal favorite subplot of the film involves a barfly that Grady nicknames “Vernon” (Richard Knox) who bears a striking resemblance to James Brown and Vernon’s pregnant cocktail waitress girlfriend Oola (Jane Adams). Vernon convinces himself that Grady has stolen his car in what initially appears to be a very comical but mostly unimportant encounter at the beginning of the film. However, this silly misunderstanding eventually results in what may be the funniest scene in modern cinema. I won’t spoil it for those that haven’t seen the movie, but it involves “Vernon”, Robert Downey Jr., the car, and Grady’s enormous manuscript.
As convoluted and fantastical as the plot is, the film amazingly never steps beyond the realm of belief. The writing, acting, direction, soundtrack, and overall execution of this bizarre story are sublime.