Director: Curtis Hanson
Screenplay: Steve Kloves based on the novel by Michael Chabron
Curtis Hanson, as far as I can tell, was pretty universally beloved by the film community as well as by the critics. Not every film of his was universally beloved but I don't hear too many people singling out a completely bad film of his. I often find comfort in rewatching some of his later, so-called lesser films like, "In Her Shoes...", or "Lucky You". The guy did work his way up though, starting in low-budget horror, action and teen comedy before making his way up to his breakthrough films of the late '80s and early '90s, and the movie That said, it does seem odd that, basically the only film that pretty much everybody agrees is an absolute must-see masterpiece is "L.A. Confidential".
"L.A. Confidential" is a masterpiece, and I've already added it to the Canon:
However, I think a second of his films should be considered on that level. "Wonder Boys" was his follow-up film to "...Confidential", and it's one of the most cerebral and strange screwball comedies of all-time. Trying to explain the events of this movie make the film feel more outlandish and outrageous than the film actually is, but it also makes it unpredictable. Rewatching it recently, I was startled by how strange it still seems. I'd seen the movie several times, it's been one of my personal favorites since the movie came out and yet, I still couldn't piece together the scenes from memory, and I was genuinely fascinated watching the movie continue to expand it's narrative and take such unexpected and bizarre turns. How it managed to go off on strange paths that seem completely unrelated, and sometimes are unrelated, how there's several red herrings implanted through the film that seem likely to head the film towards one or two directions and instead, we end up following completely different red herrings that lead to a different kind of nowhere.
Well, not nowhere, nowhere plot-wise, but personally, we're following a main character who's in the middle of a crisis on one of those long weekend that'll change his life. That character is Grady Tripp (Oscar-nominee Michael Douglas) an author who had a major hit novel several years ago but who's now seven years late on his follow-up, stuck in Writer's Block purgatory. He's currently an English professor at a New England University while there's a literary festival going on as most of his life is falling apart. His wife has recently left him. He's having an affair with the Headmaster's wife, Sara (Frances McDormand) who's now pregnant. His New York editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey, Jr.) is in town aching to see his progress on his book and getting into his own troubles. How this ends up involving a stolen car that's got a trunk filled with a dead dog, a tuba, Marilyn Monroe's jacket, and a suitcase with a 2600-word manuscript, riding around town trying to save a student who doesn't need saving,...- seriously, this movie's story is so difficult to explain that I'm constantly amazed that I can both follow it every viewing and it continually manages to makes sense in the moment. It's engrossing 'cause we're watching Grady's change from stoned-out wonder boy who's trying to run as far away from himself as we can, to when he finally decides to get his barrings straight and start making choices both in his life, and in his writing. He may believe that any minute now, he's expecting all Hell to break loose, but he's been around and fucked up enough to know that, Hell won't break loose in the way he'd expect it to.
Since it is a literary festival, the weekend is peppered with even more strange characters matriculating around then normal. There's Q (Rip Torn) a famous author, who I presume to be Stephen King (might be James Patterson) that's the most popular guy at the festival and puts out a new book every six months or so, there's Hannah Green (Katie Holmes) a red-booted red herring that's both a student at the university and seems like she's empathic enough towards Grady that, in another universe, she'd be willing to have an affair with Grady, despite him being her teacher. He's aware of that too, but he's probably just bored by the prospect of another coed who's attractive to her professor. There's Oola and Vernon (Jane Adams and Richard Knox) an attractive pregnant waitress and her angry jockey-sized boyfriend who's real name we never figure out, 'cause the only background we have on him was made up by Grady and Crabtree while they seemingly kidnapped another troubled student, James Leer. (Tobey Maguire)
Leer, on the surface seems important, I mean, he is essentially the mysterious character that Grady spends the majority of the movie trying to figure out. He's already finished a book, and it's good, yet he's a social outsider who may or may not be lying about his living arrangement and situation. Also, Crabtree's attracted to him enough to basically dump a transvestite, Miss Sloviak (Michael Cavadias) he brought with him on the plane trip over. Yet, he always seems like a MaGuffin more than an actual character.
Like I said, "Wonder Boys", has a screwball narrative, but it's arc is focused on Grady's redemption. It's one of Michael Douglas's greatest acting performances, arguably his best ever. Other movies would have all these ridiculous situations going on around him, and the main character would let everything go on and take their natural course 'til they blow up in his face. Some of the stuff he's doing, he deserves for him to have them blow up in his face like that, but sometimes when you're about to fall, the greatest accomplishment is to just regain your balance enough to stay standing and re-focus, with a clear, and un-self-medicated head.
I've tried reading the Michael Chabron book that "Wonder Boys" is based on, it's a tricky read. The movie gets right the first person narrative and there is voiceover from Grady's perspective, the opening scene of Grady reading from Leer's story in class, before diving into his voiceover is actually quite creative. That said, it helps that in the movie, we see and observe more than just Grady's skewered perspective. We hear his voiceover, but we can also observes Grady's failings from the outside, as opposed to following him blindly like he's a trustworthy narrator. I credit the screenplay, but I also think Hanson's to credit as well. No matter what he directs, he managed to understand relationships between characters better than almost anybody. He's an actor's director who let's great actors work, and knows how to frame his films around them. We see the things at the corners of the screen the way Grady sees them and the way they actually are, which helps us become more engross in the story as well. I'm not sure most other directors would've gotten that right. "Wonder Boys", takes the elements of screwball that could've easily become a bad remake of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in the wrong sarcastic hands, and finds a strangely loving and surreal film that finds a new way of telling a classic story.
That's probably the thing that "L.A. Confidential" most has in common with "Wonder Boys", taking a genre that's popularity dated back to the golden age of cinema and re-imagine it in a modern way. I'd argue taking a screwball setup and re-working it was actually harder and more difficult than a genre like film noir that's filled with scene-licking characters and crime narratives based around violence and sex; taking a screwball farce and saying you're gonna slow it down to a crawl and make it pseudo stoner comedy about the upscale literary world?" Hanson doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves for managing to walk that tightrope.