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Downey's Syndrome: Robert Downey Jr. counsels Michael Douglas in 'Wonder Boys.'

Publish or Perish

Michael Douglas acts his age as a blocked writer in Curtis Hanson's 'Wonder Boys'

By Don Hines

THE OBFUSCATED TITLE, shorthand for "where are they now," fits this near-dark comedy for adults like a tweed jacket. The title's wonder boy is blocked novelist Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), wacking weeds in that overgrown garden of Narcissus, a college English department. Tripp's first novel seven years ago won the PEN/Faulkner prize. He's currently stuck on page 2581 of his second novel, and his greasily effective editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is pressuring him while in town for the annual literary conference, WordFest. Tripp's affair with the college chancellor (Frances McDormand) has developed complications; her husband (Richard "John-Boy Walton" Thomas), the chair of the English department, is suspicious. Tripp's third wife just left him; his most promising student flirts with suicide. His nubile and clear-eyed live-in boarder (Dawson's Creek's Katie Holmes) wants him to take care, and perhaps, take her. Tripp copes by using the '70s staples: pot, painkillers and promiscuity, with the usual short-term relief.

Douglas finally portrays a character his own age: a kinder, softer rendition of the put-upon white man he's franchised for the past 15 years. The supporting cast is stronger, particularly a debauched Downey. Director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) has made a career directing sinister thrillers. Hanson's natural, flat lighting and his dark photography of Pittsburgh (starring as itself, rather than its usual role as a stand-in for New York City) lend menace to this variation of the tenure-track axiom "publish or perish." Screenwriter Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys) has adapted Michael Chabon's novel largely intact.

As in Chabon's Baker Boys script, fate and romance make for strange bedfellows. Until its artificially sweetened ending (unlike Topsy-Turvy, which pragmatically contrasts artistic creation and procreation), Wonder Boys is a bracing comedy of ill manners. A protracted send-up of the leaden sanctity that academia grants pop icons such as Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe resembles the joke (recently quoted in an Anglican literary teview) in the Mary McCarthy essay in which a creative writing student receives tutoring on a story from a professor: "Mr. Converse is going over it with me and we're going to put in the symbols." As with many modern novels, fine individual characterizations do not end in a satisfying denouement nor drown out a tinny clash of symbols.

Wonder Boys (R) directed by Curtis Hanson, written by Steve Kloves, adapted from a novel by Michael Chabon, photographed by Dante Spinotti and starring Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire, opens Friday at theaters valleywide.

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From the February 24-March 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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