A brilliant young writer (Tobey Maguire) who happens to be both a pathological liar – probably not a coincidence – and obsessed with celebrity suicides. A flamboyant bisexual literary editor (Robert Downey Jr.) who can’t tell the difference between a ten-feet-tall transvestite and a woman. A pothead English professor (Michael Douglas) with so little sense of ethics that he has the gall to be upset when his wife leaves him, even though he has been having an affair with his boss’ wife.
Add to that mix a pompous successful writer, an irascible “car robber” and his ditzy girlfriend, a ferocious blind dog, and Marilyn Monroe’s worn-out jacket, and we have the recipe for a delightful – and potentially enlightening – screwball comedy. The trouble is that Gregory La Cava’s or Leo McCarey’s touch is nowhere to be found in Wonder Boys.
After trying his hand at film noir with the so-so (though widely praised) L.A. Confidential, director Curtis Hanson opted to tackle that other classic Hollywood genre in this adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel. The ingredients are all there, but missing is the spirit of those wacky comedies of yore.
In Wonder Boys, everyone tries extremely hard to be quirky and funny – and it shows. In fact, one can almost see Hanson’s directorial hand in every comic sequence; his fist is about just as noticeable in the dramatic moments.
Sure, they also tried extremely hard back in the 1930s, but the effort put into My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and Midnight was invisible on screen. That is why those comedies worked – and still do – and that is why Wonder Boys doesn’t quite click despite its stellar cast and first-rate production values.
Either Cary Grant or William Powell could have turned Michael Douglas’ basically unsympathetic pothead into a hilarious character, but Douglas, of course, is neither Cary Grant nor William Powell. Compounding matters, he gets little help from most cast members, with the exception of Michael Cavadias’ Miss Antonia Sloviak, a transvestite whose moment of truth is the highlight of the film. I mean, when Miss Antonia removes her wig, you know the party is over. (Miss Antonia also earned my sympathy for being the film’s only character who mourns the blind dog’s untimely death.)
Ultimately, Wonder Boys left me yearning for what it might have been: A quirky, poignant madcap comedy. How about a (really funny) remake in the next few years?
Wonder Boys (2000). Director: Curtis Hanson. Cast: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes, Rip Torn, Richard Thomas, Michael Cavadias, George Grizzard. Screenplay: Steve Kloves; from Michael Chabon’s novel.