By Chase Kahn
In between making early 90’s thrillers (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild) and venturing into contemporary Nancy Meyers territory (In Her Shoes, Lucky Me), Curtis Hanson peaked in 1997 with his neo-noir police saga L.A. Confidential. He would follow it up three years later with his 2000 box-office flop Wonder Boys, an exceptional yet underrated and seldom seen film that grossed a mere $19 million domestically.
Michael Douglas plays professor and novelist Grady Tripp, in love with the school chancellor (Frances McDormand) and a mentor to students James Leer (Tobey Maguire) and Hannah Green (Katie Holmes). All the while being hassled by his editor (Robert Downey Jr.) who needs Grady to finish his book as badly as Grady does – for reputations’ sake.
To make matters worse, Grady’s most troubling student – the brilliant but reserved James Leer – has just shot his boss’s dog to death at a party, which now finds its resting place in the back of Grady’s 1966 Ford Galaxy.
Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys is essentially a darkly comic ensemble film about finding your purpose, taking action and pushing forward to achieve it – don’t sit idle wallowing in your daily routine. This notion is mirrored in Grady’s unfinished novel, which is pushing 3000 pages without an end in sight. Grady doesn’t have writer’s block, as he describes, he just, “can’t stop”.
It’s also very much fundamentally about the relationship between Grady (Douglas) and his most talented yet troubled student James (Maguire). Hated by his fellow students and quietly “spooky”, he makes his home out of a bus station, snacking on cheese sandwiches out of the vending machine for food. One day, while “rescuing” James from his grandparent’s basement, Grady and his editor, Terry (Robert Downey Jr.) run into a freshly typed paragraph still rolled around the typewriter.
“His heart, once capable of inspiring others so completely could no longer inspire so much as itself. It beat now only out of habit,” it reads. Grady isn’t rescuing James, James is rescuing him.
Douglas finds the twisted ironic center of this character and brings real emotion and humor to him. His filthy and tainted pink robe and leathery, wrinkled brows depict the years of stagnant progression, or lack there of, that have taken a toll on his life which is now clearly in its latter half.
Wonder Boys is a hidden gem, a great film widely avoided by audiences and awards alike upon its release.