Falling Down 

Men on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the delightful Wonder Boys

Men on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the delightful Wonder Boys

Wonder Boys

dir. Curtis Hanson

R, 116 mins.

Now playing at area theaters

There should be a section at the video store called ”On The Brink,“ for all those movies about characters at the end of their tether—stressed out because of job pressures, drugs, crushing debt, or some combination thereof. On that shelf you’d find Bad Lieutenant, Bringing Out the Dead, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Sweet Smell of Success, and about 50 other films that follow a person whose house of cards is facing a day or two of strong winds. As soon as it comes off the new release wall, you can also file Wonder Boys under ”On The Brink,“ although unlike others of its genre, director Curtis Hanson’s new film (from a script by Steve Kloves, adapting Michael Chabon’s novel) is more relaxed, with a less desperate tone...one that suits the film’s setting.

Wonder Boys takes place at a liberal arts college in Pittsburgh—one of those rare oases of contemplation in an otherwise hectic city—on a campus where betrayal and vice occurs with genteel regularity. Michael Douglas stars as Grady Tripp, an English professor still coasting on the reputation of his first novel, The Arsonist’s Daughter—a critical success that Tripp seems unwilling to sully with the cold reality of a second book. Tripp’s problem isn’t writer’s block; it’s an inability to block. In the seven years since the publication of his debut, he’s been cranking out page after page and moving further from a conclusion the more he writes. The one person who’s read the 2,600-word work-in-progress points out that Tripp can’t choose between what’s pertinent to his narrative and what’s just colorful time-wasting.

That criticism doesn’t just apply to his novel. As Wonder Boys opens, Tripp’s wife has left him because of his lack of commitment to the marriage. That doesn’t bother the professor as much as that his mistress Sara (Frances McDormand), who happens to be the chancellor of the university, has just announced that she’s pregnant. All of this takes place on the eve of ”Wordfest,“ an annual weekend convention of writers, editors, and publishers that is a very big deal to Tripp’s boss (Richard Thomas), who moonlights as Sara’s husband.

The film takes place over the three days of ”Wordfest,“ as Tripp simultaneously hosts his editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), while shepherding a gifted but seemingly hapless student named James Leer (Tobey Maguire). The attempt to keep the lecherous Crabtree away from a confused and possibly suicidal James would be easier if Tripp didn’t keep blacking out from an excess of marijuana and a lack of restful sleep.

Given that this is Hanson’s first film since the triumph of L.A. Confidential, it’s possible that the journeyman director was also feeling some Tripp-like pressure. If so, it doesn’t show. Wonder Boys moves forward with quiet confidence, and Hanson shows once again that his greatest gift is pulling perfectly modulated performances out of his cast. If the Academy Awards ever added a category for ”Best Doubles Acting,“ the first award should go to Douglas and Maguire. They make quite a pair, with Douglas’ condescension and Maguire’s faux naivete playing off each other and creating a mood of fascination and danger.

Of course, there’s no real danger in the film; nothing’s really at stake but the egos of upper-middle-class aesthetes. Some viewers may find that off-putting, and indeed Wonder Boys will probably play best to lifelong academics who will find lines like ”I’ve got tenure“ inherently funny. Frankly, Wonder Boys feels like an adaptation of a novel: Like the recent version of The Beach, it only roughly sketches many important minor characters and subplots. But unlike the adaptors of The Beach, Hanson and Kloves know what they’re trying to do. Their picture exists in an amiable fog that obscures motivations and makes decisions difficult. Their lead character Tripp is reduced to reacting only to what’s in front of him at any given moment. Who hasn’t had one of those days or weekends—or years?

—Noel Murray

Two for the Road

Perhaps it’s a measure of how far women have come in the movies that there were two different films in 1999 about a mother and daughter traveling cross-country to find a better life. In some ways, both films—the mass-market Anywhere But Here and the independent Tumbleweeds—play like mature versions of Thelma and Louise. The action has moved to the interior of the characters; where Ridley Scott’s film was outsized and anthemic, the two recent films are intimate and personal.

Tumbleweeds suffers in some respects from being the runner-up to Anywhere But Here. Although Tumbleweeds debuted at last year’s Sundance festival, most viewers saw Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman play the flaky mother and practical daughter before they will see Janet McTeer and Kimberly Brown in similar roles. That’s a shame, because the proper progression from Thelma and Louise would put Tumbleweeds—which retains a tiny measure of Thelma’s vertiginous, dreamlike tone—before the more realistic (and therefore more tragic) Anywhere But Here. After Sarandon’s nuanced portrayal of a woman trying to be the assertive, strong, sexual, fun-loving single gal she imagines as an ideal—and Portman’s desperation as a teenager trying to grow into another mold—the sentimentality of Tumbleweed’s mother-daughter bond seems regressive.

McTeer and Brown, however, almost succeed in overcoming an audience’s biased expectations. The former—a British actress best known for Broadway and BBC work—throws herself into the unlikely role of Mary Jo, a rural West Virginian with a habit of leaving husbands at the drop of a hat. She’s utterly convincing. Brown, who’s done some acting on TV and animation voice-overs, has more trouble with her accent, but her wonderfully ordinary look and giddy girlishness helps Tumbleweeds distinguish itself from Hollywood product. The two take off to see one of Mom’s old flames in Missouri, but when that doesn’t pan out, they keep going west. On their way to San Diego, they run into a helpful (and moderately hunky) truck driver named Jack (Gavin O’Connor, the director and co-writer); later, in California, that flirtation becomes cohabitation. While daughter Ava flexes her newfound feminist muscle by landing the role of Romeo in the school play, she also finds Mom a new and better man, a widower named Dan (Jay O. Sanders).

After Anywhere But Here’s tough plotline, Tumbleweeds comes off as almost irresponsibly lighthearted. There’s never a sense that these two women won’t land on their feet. But it’s unfair to judge O’Connor’s movie harshly just because it has a happy ending. O’Connor wrote the screenplay with his ex-wife, Angela Shelton, who based her story on her experiences with her own mother. If Shelton tends to see those childhood days as more of a rose-tinted lark and less of a tragedy, it’s hard to argue with her, although it’s also hard to believe her. At least the film takes several giant steps away from Thelma and Louise’s heavy-handed martyrdom, even if it ends up closer to Disneyland than reality.

—Donna Bowman

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