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Possible to Put Down!

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2000


    'Wonder Boys' Michael Douglas stars in "Wonder Boys." (Paramount)
Oh, those wacky novelists! If it's not one darn thing, it's another. Those boys just don't know when to quit. Their lives are one big goof-fest!

That's the message of the feeble "Wonder Boys," a look at literary life in the very slow lane: a washed-up boy genius who's taken refuge in an ivory tower where he keeps himself stoned to avoid the realization that novel number two is 2,300-odd pages of toxic waste.

This movie's idea of a writer: somebody who wears a scarf indoors. Tweeds? Of course. Funky, shabby house? Totally. A scruffy mess of hair, horn-rim glasses, turtlenecks? Mais certainement! Despair, ennui, ironic detachment, mordant wit, self-pity by the bushel-basketful? Absolument! Wait, it gets worse. This movie's idea of a writer: Michael Douglas.

Douglas plays Grady Tripp, author of the brilliant "Arsonist's Daughter." Alas, that was seven years ago. Now he's gone to ground in a Pittsburgh university where he toils in the English department, trying to nudge undergrads toward creative liberation while struggling with his own issues. His problem isn't that he's blocked, it's that he isn't blocked. He has a form of intellectual diarrhea whose primary symptom is the overwhelming need to fill page after page with gibberish. At least he hasn't fallen as low as "The Arsonist's Other Daughter" or "The Arsonist's Daughter Goes to Washington" or "Titus Andronicus: A Novelization Based on the Movie by Julie Taymor and the Play by William Shakespeare."

The movie, which is from a novel by Michael Chabon, chronicles the fall and rebirth of Grady. It is set over a long weekend when the university is sponsoring what appears to be a high-church version of homecoming called WordFest, in which the presence of a best-selling author, not the football game, is the pretext for the drunken revelry.

Brady invites his New York editor, Terry Crabtree (the ever-annoying Robert Downey Jr.), which proves to be a mistake: Terry wants to read the unfinished book (this seems to surprise Grady, but isn't it what editors do?) while at the same time is clearly hoping to get laid. Other crises: One of his students, James Leer (deadpan Tobey Maguire), seems to be on the verge of suicide, presumably from reading his own gloomy stories. And his mistress, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), has just killed the rabbit. Just to make it even wackier, she's not only the chancellor of the university, she's the gol-dang wife of his English department head (Richard Thomas, in a part so small it's hardly there).

A lot seems to happen, but it's a delusion. In fact, almost nothing happens--it just doesn't happen in different places every few minutes. Mainly, the camera hangs out with Grady as he roams about Pittsburgh in the presence of one or another of his co-stars; both the camera and the co-stars suffer from the misperception that he's charming.

While you're waiting for something other than "Lifestyles of the Unrich and Charmless" you realize it's not going to be. The sad truth is that "Wonder Boys" is little more than a sentimentalized encomium to the disheveled, childish life it ascribes to writers. It loves their funky clothes and messy houses and the endless chaos that is their daily bread. It argues that they thrive on an indifference to the real in search of the ideal and that they are such autistic savants they deserve hugs and to be cut endless slack on their transgressions.

Who's kidding whom? Evidently Curtis Hanson, who directed "L.A. Confidential," a notably unsentimental work, is one of the kidded. He's the last guy you'd think would be taken in, but he actually seems to believe in this pablum.

WONDER BOYS (112 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual innuendo, profanity and bad clothes.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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