Wonder Boys (2000)

“She was a junkie for the printed word. Lucky for me, I manufactured her drug of choice.” I once knew an old gray-haired professor with a scraggly beard who was equally comfortable discussing the works of Shakespeare, the lyrics of Jim Morrison, the poetry of Anne Sexton, the plays of Samuel Beckett and the films of Stanley Kubrick. A child prodigy who graduated from Harvard at the tender age of 16, he rode a moped through campus and drank his morning “coffee” out of a battered thermos. He once told the class that the entire body of work from such esteemed writers as John Barth and Kurt Vonnegut was “unreadable.” In addition, he referred to Tom Wolfe as a “wannabe” who wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a “total piece of shit.” He rejected most of the so-called modern writers in favor of Celine, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hamsun, Thomas Wolfe and Henry Miller. In short, he was the best professor I ever had. All of this nostalgia came roaring back to me during a viewing of Wonder Boys, a well-acted and solidly scripted dramatic comedy from Director Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential). It’s based on a 1995 novel of the same name by Michael Chabon. Michael Douglas portrays Grady Tripp, a burnt-out English professor at a liberal arts college in Pittsburgh who stumbles through life in a haze, getting stoned and having sex with Sara, the school’s chancellor (Frances McDormand, the pregnant cop in Fargo). Seven long years earlier Tripp wrote a critically acclaimed novel, The Arsonist’s Daughter, and now everyone is waiting for the follow up, including his gay literary agent Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.). Grady isn’t suffering from writer’s block; he simply doesn’t know how to finish his second novel, a sprawling 2,612-page epic. If that weren’t enough, he has to provide guidance to a disturbed but talented student, James Leer (Tobey Maguire). Well, everything comes to a climax during the college’s annual “Wordfest,” a weekend of activities that includes a six-foot-six transvestite, a pregnant chancellor, a dead dog in a trunk, Marilyn Monroe’s missing jacket, a miniature James Brown lookalike and about a thousand pages of manuscript “blowin’ in the wind.” Wonder Boys boasts a great soundtrack that includes Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain,” Neil Young’s “Old Man,” “Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” and Van Morrison’s “Philosophers Stone.”

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