In the quirky and very novel-like "Wonder Boys," Michael Douglas does a masterful job of playing a novelist whose fear of trying to best or at least match the success of his first novel has stymied his efforts of completing his second. Of course, writer's (or any type of creative) block can be detrimental to the creative process, but trying to top a critically acclaimed work can be just as crippling and often even more devastating.
One has to wonder, then, if the film's director, Curtis Hanson, felt the same pressure in choosing and then filming his latest project. Despite having successfully delivered films as diverse as "Losin' It" and "The River Wild," his best film to date has been "L.A. Confidential," the critically acclaimed 1997 picture that probably would have won more Oscars had it not been for that little sinking boat picture released the same year.
As such, Hanson can certainly identify with at least part of his central protagonist's plight and it would be interested to know whether he chose the project based on that "kinship." Whatever the case, the question that then follows is whether his choice for his follow-up effort was the correct one and how it stacks up against his previous work.
While not as good or as complex as "L.A. Confidential," the film - adapted by screenwriter Steve Kloves ("Flesh and Bone," "The Fabulous Baker Boys") from Michael Chabon's novel - is an entirely different beast. Whereas the former was a riveting and intricate period tale of corruption in the L.A.P.D., this one is a more casually paced and constructed, character driven piece. It certainly possesses the trappings and atmospheric feel of a novel, although having not read Chabon's work I obviously can't compare the two.
Filled with charismatically quirky characters and a progression of somewhat daffy complications for the protagonist, this coming of age meets midlife crisis flick is both moderately amusing and generally entertaining. Yet, its story constantly comes off like an abridged version with characters and events feeling as if they're neither fully utilized nor developed.
For instance, while it does have something of a black comedy streak running through it - particularly dealing with a dead animal - the film's casual approach at using it - despite a brief homage of sorts to a scene from "The Godfather" - undermines those efforts. The result is that the audience never knows for sure whether to laugh at such material (in the line of traditional black comedies) or find it distasteful.
In a similar vein, the whole notion of James -- the talented but troubled and somewhat disturbed student writer - being a pathological, or at least highly imaginative liar is touched upon, but never fully explored to make it a satisfying, engaging and/or clever addition to the proceedings.
While everyone might not agree with those and/or the following assessments and objections, I doubt I'm the only one who feels that the picture ultimately amounted to and delivered a whole lot of nothing. While the comical complications generally keep the story interesting, they tease with and/or exude the notion that something grand is building - on a cumulative level - from everything that occurs throughout the movie.
Although the film manages to generate a slightly imaginative twist at the end - not to mention a credible and somewhat satisfying denouement - some viewers will probably have a similar feeling of being let down after expecting something more than what's eventually delivered, particularly considering the film's use of low-key, but continually building anticipation.
What is delivered in full quantity, however, is a fine performance by Michael Douglas in the lead role. It's been a while since he played a grungy, loser of a character, and it's fun to watch him in something other than the slick manipulative roles in films such as "Wall Street" and "A Perfect Murder" (although he does play them so well).
While up and coming - and recently quite busy - actor Tobey Maguire ("The Cider House Rules," "Pleasantville") has yet to lose any sleep about breaking out from such typecasting, he continues in his trend of playing characters with the blank expression of someone lost deep inside their own thoughts - or like a deer in the headlights. If he keeps playing such characters, he will eventually become pigeonholed in playing those sorts of roles and characterizations, but at least for now he delivers another engaging performance here as the troubled, young writer.
It's Robert Downey Jr. ("In Dreams," "U.S. Marshals"), however, who steals much of the show. Whether the gifted but troubled actor brings any of his own turmoil to his characters is uncertain, but he certainly creates interesting personas for those he plays. Afforded less screen time, the remaining performers aren't given the opportunity to develop their characters as much as they should have, and clearly not as much as one imagines they were in the novel. Of those, Frances McDormand ("Madeline," "Fargo") gets the most time on screen, but one constantly gets the impression that there's more to her character that we never see.
The same holds true for Richard Thomas (TV's "The Waltons") as her husband, Katie Holmes ("Teaching Mrs. Tingle," "Go") as a live-in student seemingly interested in Grady, and the usually fabulous Rip Torn ("Men in Black," HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show") as a literary competitor, all of whom come off more like set dressings than interesting and properly developed characters. Granted, few films can afford the time to allow supporting characters to shine and flourish like novels can, but such omissions only reinforce the aforementioned, abridged feel the film often exudes.
Of course, some viewers might not concur with those observations and will feel that the film's casual approach at telling its story is what makes it charming and entertaining. While there's some merit to that, the fact that we as a moviegoing audience have been trained to expect big, culminating payoffs in our films means that this one feels shortchanged. Although that's not necessarily a huge fault or one that should be placed solely on the film's shoulders, you can't help but end up having the old "it could/should have been better" feeling. As such, we rate "Wonder Boys" as a 6 out of 10.