Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. For this week’s Thanksgiving-weekend edition: David Fear on Curtis Hanson’s lit-com Wonder Boys.
“A man should live out his life fully and completely … give form too every feeling, reality to every dream.”-George Saunders in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
“Things have changed.”-Bob Dylan, Oscar Winner
Let us now praise Michael Douglas, patron saint of bad screen-male behavior. Seriously, browse through some of the better-to-best–known titles in the 74-year-old actor’s back catalog, from the Reagan to the Clinton era, and it reads like a roll call of modern XY-chromosome toxicity. A sampling: the entitled philanderer-turned-victim of Fatal Attraction (1987); an icon of unregulated, unchecked capitalism in Wall Street (1987); the satirical man-of-the-house spouse in the still brilliant War of the Roses (1989); a swingin’-dick detective in Basic Instinct (1992); the personification of white-man rage in Falling Down (1993); the target of reverse sexual harassment in the Michael Crichton misogynistic cheese-whiz Disclosure (1994); a self-involved investment banker in need of a kick to the head in The Game (1997); and a wife-murdering hedge-fund manager straight out of a Dateline special in A Perfect Murder (1998).
There were other roles in between, screwball adventurers and American presidents. But for a decade-plus, Douglas was a great go-to guy for a certain strain of middle or upper-class alphas — sometimes put-upon, sometimes grab-’em-by-pussy swaggering, always representative of a Master of the Universe mentality and always with great hair. The damage done by a generation who didn’t get the irony behind “Greed is good” is all around us; you can picture an incel clubhouse with a poster of late ’80s Douglas on its walls. You wanted a cucks-socker back then? Who ya gonna call?
It was a fertile niche, even if it wasn’t who this Hollywood-royalty-turned-TV-sidekick, Oscar-winning-producer-turned-movie-star felt that he really was. By the end of the 20th century, Douglas was ready for a change. You could not picture him playing Grady Tripp, the burnt-out husk of a literary stereotype that powers Wonder Boys, when Michael Chabon’s novel first lined bookstore shelves in 1995. Based loosely on Chuck Kinder, a novelist and creative-writing professor who taught Chabon at the University of Pittsburgh back in the Eighties, Tripp is a gent stuck in a rut. He’s described as a “dented, gas-guzzling, old Galaxie 500 of a man.” Once, his book The Arsonist’s Daughter (that title!) gave him a taste of next-big-thing celebrity, a PEN award and the possibility of tenure. Now, he’s neck-deep in a massive monolith of a follow-up, a manuscript with no end in sight. A over-fondness for marijuana is not helping him locate his M.I.A. muse, either. Nor is an affair he’s having with his department head’s wife.
The cheating with another guy’s spouse — that felt like familiar Douglas antihero territory. Everything else? It was just too former-great-man-in-free-fall for him. (Even Falling Down‘s D-Fens gets a vigilante-like “reclamation” arc.) Which is partially why, by 2000, Douglas wanted the role so badly. “I was in the market for a romantic comedy role,” he told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “Something a little offbeat.” What he needed was a change, and Tripp — and the movie version of this book — would deliver it. Not a radical one like, say, playing Liberace in a biopic,. That would come later. But enough that, thanks to director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves, the star’s usual male protagonist would get his own miniature passion play. Forget the rom-com. How about a lit-com?
Wonder Boys starts with clanging bells — they toll for thee, fellas — and a voiceover that couldn’t be more of a parody of a certain type of prose: “The young girl sat perfectly still in the confessional, listening to her father’s boots scrape like chalk on the ancient steps of the church, then grow faint … then disappear altogether.” They are not Tripp’s words, though he’s reading them aloud. They belong to James Leer (Tobey Maguire), his student and the wunderkind who’s a stand-in for every youngster nipping at a fortysomething writer’s heels. Along with Q, Rip Torn’s Mailer-esque eminence grise who’s at the university for its annual WordFest celebration, these three scribes represent a sort of Ascension of Man chart of the Great American Male Novelist, with Douglas’s Grady right in the not-quite-knuckle-dragging middle.
The real corner of the Three-Stooges triangle, however, is Tripp’s editor: Terry Crabtree, an all-purpose hedonist who breezes into town with a 6’5″ drag queen on his arm and an insistent curiosity where his prize author’s long-awaited second book is. (Knowing that Downey, who was in a California prison thanks to drug-related charges when the film was released in February 2000, would eventually pull out of his tailspin makes these scenes easier to watch now; as it is, they remind you how talented he was even at his most volatile.) This trio of Tripp, Leer and Crabtree — the Father, the Son and the Holy-Shit Ghost — are the wonder boys in the middle of the movie’s misadventures, involving a stolen piece of memorabilia (Marilyn Monroe’s wedding jacket), a gun, a dead dog, a car who’s true ownership is in question and pages upon pages upon pages drifting into the Mononghela River.
And while the film’s ambling, semi-stoned pace and tone isn’t quite a screwball comic speed (NY Times‘ A.O. Scott said it was like “a George Cukor movie with a bad head cold,” which, y’know, ouch), it’s incredible how well the film itself holds up, not just quality-wise but in a then-to-now-ratio manner. Yes, the tall female impersonator character still feels like it could tip into butt-of-a-joke insensitivity at a moment’s notice. But this is a movie in which the requisite sexy underage dream girl — take a bow, Katie Holmes — doesn’t end up sleeping with the older man and doesn’t just serve the function of being a middle-age-crazy metaphor. Her Hannah Green is not a symbol of his fading youth; she’s the one, in fact, who tells him to lay off the dope. This is a movie in which Douglas has an age-appropriate, if adulterous relationship with Frances McDormand, who lends the role a sexiness without turning her academic into a symbolic savior figure. It goes without saying that they do not make movies like this anymore in the Marvel-uber-alles age, but Wonder Boys should be required viewing for ‘shipping superheroes-cinema fanboys, as this is the movie in which Iron Man sleeps with Spider-Man.
Most importantly, this is the movie in which Michael Douglas can be found moping around in a ratty pink bath robe, the sort of outfit that Gordon Gekko and Nick Curran would never be caught dead in. The film’s other holy trinity — Michael Chabon, Curtis Hanson and Steve Kloves — do not come to bury the archetype of the Roth/Updike/Bellow author, but they sure as hell did not come to praise him. Seven months after Wonder Boys first hit theaters, Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (again with the superheroes!) would mark him as part of a Next Big Thing literary movement a lot different than previous generations of bad-boy novelists. Hanson was coming off of L.A. Confidential and Kloves had two critically lauded writer-director gigs, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone, under his belt. None of them wanted to repeat themselves or be pigeonholed. All of them were intrigued by the idea that the default mode of a former Wonder Boy didn’t have to be a Horrible Man. Who better than the poster boy for alpha dude-bros to play someone learning about better living through beta modes?
Douglas would go on to do self-critique movies on his old BDE persona — the underrated Solitary Man (2009) is the best, with King of California (2007) a close second. But surprisingly, Wonder Boys is the one that, arguably, holds up best in the post-Reckoning moment. To say that Douglas made movies that demand revisiting now in terms of their retrograde politics and pop culture toxicity would be an understatement; he himself told Marc Maron on his podcast that he was surprised the #MeToo movement had not singled out Disclosure for the backwards mess that it is. To see this gentle repudiation of the fucking-fighting-hard-partying man of letters as a corrective of sorts now feels like an intriguing pivot. These types of boys never had to grow up or get their ain’t-I-a-stinker? shit together before. But like the Oscar winner singing the title song says, “Things have changed.”
Previously: The People Under the Stairs