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A second look at "Wonder Boys"

By Ray Pride

MARCH 13, 2000:  Sometimes you want word of mouth to save a big, good, unexpected movie.

And the word of mouth I've gotten from friends and acquaintances on "Wonder Boys" is generally extremely enthusiastic: why did we not know how good this film was? Maybe some critics failed to convey its strengths; maybe audiences expect Michael Douglas to be the venial male demon oozing rage that he's played for much of the last decade instead of the humbled, middle-aged, pot-stoked man of letters and confusion that is Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas); and maybe the advertising doesn't convey the tender heart under the relationship dynamics and rueful slapstick of Curtis Hanson's follow-up to "L. A. Confidential."

I caught up with Hanson on Monday by phone at his Los Angeles office, where he'd just looked over the weekend's results. Hanson says he's not a scholar of the grosses of his films. "The percentages are holding well, as I understand it. They're [dropping] off in the twenties. I have a really strong rooting interest in how the movie does because I want as many people as possible to see it. But y'know, unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, those decisions are not mine, how to market the movie and how to distribute it and when to put it out. I put my two cents in and that's about what it's worth."

I tell him the regular moviegoers I know who have been happily surprised by the movie are shocked that there's a good movie in the late winter slate of releases. "Exactly. The exit polls, what you hear again and again, is that the movie was so much better than they thought it would be!" He laughs. "And you go, well, either the advertising or the poster, which has gotten a lot of criticism, y'know, that headshot of Michael, or just the assumption that like you say, when it came out, it's like a time to dump things."

Women I know are surprised that Douglas is not angry. "Yeah. That of course is what, I think, was exciting to Michael about playing the part, and for me about casting him in it. It's an opportunity to show a different side of Michael Douglas to the moviegoing public that assumes, the way we always assume with movie stars, that we kind of know them. The chance to see him be both vulnerable and funny. I think it's the vulnerability you're talking about. It's so appealing, it makes you care about the guy."

Hanson read an adaptation of Michael Chabon's Pittsburgh-set picaresque that had been done by writer-director Steve Kloves, and when he signed on, they worked together until the end of the production. I'd read a draft, and asked Hanson about a line that was cut from the film, that seemed emblematic on the page but perhaps too on-the-nose on-screen. Of Robert Downey Jr.'s randy Crabtree, Grady's perhaps-gay, perhaps-bisexual book editor, someone observed of why he never became a writer, "He's too busy living a novel to write one." Was it too perfect a line? Hanson laughs at the word choice. "Well, maybe!" He thinks. "That came from the novel... I believe. And actually, that stayed in the script and in fact was in the picture. I shot that. Then ended up in the final analysis dropping it because... I mean, no great compelling reason. It was just in the area of tightening. Where the line originated, which is no interest probably to anyone but you and me, because you would have had to have read the book and so forth, was that Crabtree and Grady were friends from college days, writing classes."

What Hanson did by shifting Crabtree's age was to neatly position him between Grady and Tobey Maguire's James Leer, the gifted young writing student and pathological liar who inspires Douglas to change his life. Thus: three generations of Wonder Boys, reinforcing the meaning behind the title and the themes of understanding the role of the past and the future in a life lived in a flurried-flustered present tense. "Then it was no longer just about this guy having a midlife crisis."

The casting is fine at every turn, with recognizable faces in small turns. It's more than a Woody Allen stunt cameo. "Yeah, well, I never felt that any of these characters were cameos in any way, nor did they." Even Katie Holmes, as a fellow student of James and a boarder of Grady's with a demonstrated daddy complex, shows fresh acting chops. "There's a substance intellectually [in her character]. She's got a weight to her you haven't seen before. It was similar to 'L.A. Confidential' in a way: you'd have Frances McDormand for a couple of days, then she'd go away, then you'd have Robert, then you'd have Tobey. It was constantly invigorating."

Another bracing element is the relentless snowfall, almost entirely shot on location in Pittsburgh. Hanson notes cinematographer Dante Spinotti's great gift for confecting the light to take advantage of nature at night, and loved one critic's summation that the movie seemed to take place in an enchanted snow globe. "Jane Adams, one of the actresses, when she was going home, she left a package at my hotel, a little present, and I opened it up, and it was a little snow globe of Pittsburgh. I thought, such a great, thoughtful present 'cos of the weather and the whole deal. And then that line in that review was just tremendous." I can almost hear his smile across the wires.

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