I was very sad to learn today that Curtis Hanson had died. He is known for LA Confidential and 8 Mile much better than this little-known gem, which grossed $33 million at the box office (with a budget of $55 million… ouch).
In Wonder Boys, Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a writing professor with a never-ending novel manuscript, a pregnant mistress, and a suspicious editor. It’s in that category of intellectual indie-style movies that don’t seem to have a plot and yet are chock-full of events (this one has a murder and a car chase, among others, that have very little to do with the actual meat of the story). And it’s based on a novel—Michael Chabon’s of the same name, also extremely good—which means that it was always inherently in danger of plotlessness.
Am I not making it sound great? Trust me, it is. Yeah, it’s quirky; yeah, it’s got Tobey Maguire in it and he’s kind of annoying sometimes; yeah, a lot of us are kind of over that quirky-indie-movie-that-goes-nowhere genre. But—especially if you’re a writer, but even if you’re not—you should Totally. Watch. This.
Here are eight reasons why.
8. Katie Holmes punctures a few male egos
Katie Holmes, in those innocent days when Tom Cruise was just that guy from all the action movies and not her creepy gay Scientologist husband, plays a pretty and talented student named Hannah Green in Tripp’s class. Before we even had the word “mansplaining,” two of Katie Holmes’ scenes highlighted the inflated ego of the male writer. At a party, she’s listening to a famous writer, Q, rumble on and on about his own “conflicted” feelings about his work, when Grady reveals that she has two stories published in the Paris Review. “You didn’t tell me you were a writer,” Q says (note that they’re at a faculty party, it’s not like this is a bar). “You never asked,” Hannah says.
Later, kindly, she will tell Tripp exactly what’s wrong with his book (and his life). His response is to brag about his past successes and imply that she couldn’t possibly know the secret to being as amazing as he is. Not his best moment.
7. The soundtrack
Bob Dylan features heavily on the soundtrack, which is heavily male, gritty and folksy. But the best soundtrack choice made is at a moment when Grady unwittingly betrays a young writing student of his, and a cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man” plays in the background.
“Old Man” is basically the anthem of this movie, which is all about older men seeing themselves in younger men.
6. Frances McDormand is in it.
As Sara, Grady’s extra-marital love interest (who also happens to be the chancellor of the school he works at), she is tough, funny, and perhaps a little bit vulnerable. She makes it convincing that a powerful woman would fall for a man like Tripp, but she puts plenty of steel into the moments where Sara is angry at him.
5. Robert Downey Junior
Robert Downey, Jr. plays Terry Crabtree, the bespectacled, bisexual, quippy, smirking editor in town to check on the progress of Grady’s never-ending novel. And no one can smirk like RDJ.
Full disclosure: RDJ was actually 100% the reason I picked up this random movie to begin with. I mean, I’m the girl who actually owns, on DVD, the movie Chances Are, where RDJ plays the resurrected spirit of a dead man living in the body of his own daughter’s boyfriend. So. I was a HUGE fan, is what I’m saying. No regrets.
4. The grand list of movie suicides.
It’s an epic scene. Tobey Maguire’s character, James Leer, is so serious and creepy and endearing, all at the same time—and Terry Crabtree is so turned on.
Tobey Maguire does a fantastic job in this movie overall, playing Grady Tripp’s troubled student: a kid who’s both pathetic and sinister, talented and confused, with an expression of constant, slightly bemused watchfulness, whether he’s committing a crime or watching his teacher suck down a shot of liquor.
3. Miss Antonia Sloviak’s tuba case
Miss Antonia Sloviak, a woman Terry Crabtree brings to the faculty party, has a tuba case covered in cow fur, which is absolutely fabulous. She is gender-queer and there are a few moments that will shock the 2016 ear, like people referring to her as a transvestite, or remarks to the effect that Terry Crabtree is a collector of freaks. But Antonia herself is not portrayed as a freak; living (part of) her life as a woman is just a thing she does. Her actual problem is that she can’t hold the attention of her boyfriend, which has been pretty much every human being’s problem at some point or another.
2. The game.
Grady and Terry play a game where they come up with bonkers life stories for people they see around their world. At one point, they write the life of one Vernon Hardapple, a horse jockey who lives with his mother and hired a hitman to take out his brother. It will make you want to play this game all the time (until, of course, you realize that you don’t have the fiendish inventive capacity of a Terry Crabtree, or really, of a Michael Chabon).
1. Grady’s bathrobe.
If you’re a writer, and you’re a hot mess, of COURSE you are walking around in a ratty old pink bathrobe. At one point while wearing it, Grady even hangs up on his own (pregnant) girlfriend after asking her to just hold on a minute, because he doesn’t want to deal with a difficult conversation.
This perfect costuming choice symbolizes exactly what I love most about this movie: the fact that it shows the ugly, pathetic side of being a writer. People either don’t want to read your work and you’re desperately hoping they will—or they do want to read it, and you’re desperately hoping they don’t find out you’re a fraud. It’s all desperation, self-doubt, and those weird little things that give you comfort.
Thank you to Curtis Hanson for directing this gem of a film.