Scribblers on Celluloid #6: Wonder Boys

Posted: February 11, 2016 in Scribblers on Celluloid
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A Writer’s Review of: Wonder Boys

 

wonder-boys poster

 

Release Date: February 25, 2000

MPAA Rating: R

Starring: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes

Written by: Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon

Directed by: Curtis Hanson

Spoiler Level: Low.

 

 

Greetings, hacks and scribblers! How’s every little thing? I trust the Universe continues to smile kindly on your every endeavor.

smiling universe

 

 

Today’s SoC entry is the eminently re-watchable film, Wonder Boys!

 

 

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

An English Professor tries to deal with his wife leaving him, the arrival of his editor who has been waiting for his book for seven years, and the various problems that his friends and associates involve him in.

 

The Slightly More Informative (and less boring) Synopsis:

Grady Tripp is a creative writing professor/writer living in Pittsburgh who is struggling with writer’s block. Whilst doing this, he also manages to get the chancellor pregnant. In the meantime, he and a college student, James Leer are trying to find a rare jacket once owned by Marilyn Monroe, and a college girl, Hannah Green boarding with Grady has a bit of a crush on him.

 

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

Not too hard with this one. As far as movies about writers go, Wonder Boys is very much a round peg in a round hole. A once-popular writer struggling with his follow-up book, while poorly mentoring one of his students, a young, depressed writer who just might be brilliant.

 

Entertainment Quotient:

Rotten Tomatoes rated this film as Certified Fresh, with a positive score of 81%.

Wonder Boys is one of those few movies that stand up to repeated viewings; no matter how many times you see it, the bits and gimmicks work. The movie sparkles from the get-go, and what a wonderfully dull sparkle it is. Wonder Boys is reminiscent of the best gritty, unpredictable films like Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican. Anything can and does happen, and most of what happens is surprising, ironically because the events and foibles seem true—they aren’t predictable, but you find yourself saying (after recovering from a spit take), “Sure, that’s exactly what would have happened in that situation.” Hollywood likes to fabricate consequences, and more often than not we see it coming. Not so with Wonder Boys.

Outside any writerly element, what makes this movie near-perfect is its cast.

Michael Douglas plays Professor Grady Tripp, a perpetually unshaven, pot-smoking, soon-to-be-has-been writer, limping throughout the film in a tattered pink robe due to a dog bite he receives early on in the movie (and that dog bite scene is a “holy crap” moment if ever there was one). There’s something pleasantly bohemian about Grady’s huge, dark and rambling house. It’s not uncommon to encounter some hungover person stumbling into a tight hall from one of the house’s many rooms. This is a place where we’d feel comfortable crashing, nodding to the other bleary-eyed souls wandering the stairs.

Tobey Maguire plays one of Grady Tripp’s students, James Leer, a hollow-eyed, depressed, possibly genius boy writer. Maguire does a lot of things well, but I think he plays this kind of borderline-creepy role best—he’s so convincing as James Leer, you wonder if this might actually be what he is like in real life, although you hope not. In many ways, this character is what we mean when we label someone in fiction as an unreliable narrator. Because James cannot be trusted. He is writing every moment he is speaking. Like the best of writers, he’s a compulsive liar; everything out of his mouth is fabrication. Perfect, complete, total fabrication.

Katie Holmes as Hannah Green is as adorable as ever. Perfect crooked smile cuteness as she fawns over Professor Tripp’s work-in-progress, clearly infatuated with the man and his work.

Rip Torn as Quentin “Q” Morewood, a pompous literary icon (who somehow manages to still be affable), plays his role to perfection. “I am a writer,” he intones at the beginning of his WordFest speech, his voice resonating throughout the lecture hall. And that is all you need to know about him, and it is important, and we believe it is important.

The rest of the cast are equally well-played. Robert Downey Jr. is bang-on as Grady’s almost lecherous, but oh so likable gay editor, Terry Crabtree. Frances McDormand as Grady’s love interest, Chancellor Sara Gaskell; Richard Thomas as Gaskell’s husband, Walter Gaskell; and the weirdly engaging performance of Richard Knox as Vernon Hardapple. Not an off-note in the chorus.

Based on the novel by Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys is very much a novel on screen. As soon as I finish this post I am going to buy the book.

 

The Writerly Element:

Wonder Boys has roughly a gazillion quotable moments for the writer. I will try hard to spare you most of these, because context is everything and–as much as I’d like to–I absolutely refuse to copy and paste the entire script for you here.

But (ah yes, the famous Mott’s Ruminations ‘but’) …let’s start with Q’s speech at WordFest, immediately following his sonorous declaration that he is A Writer:

“What is the bridge from the water’s edge of inspiration to the far shores of accomplishment? Faith that your story is worth telling. Faith that you have the wherewithal to tell it. And faith that the carefully woven structure you created won’t collapse beneath you. And faith that when you get to the other side there will be someone waiting who gives a damn about the tale you have to tell.”

Whoa…am I right? I ran that back and watched it several times. He nailed it, I thought. That’s the truth of writing right there. But this line actually plays better on the page than on the screen. On the screen, there’s a bit of blow-hardness to the delivery. But man, that’s some sweet sentiment, ain’t it? I so wanted to get more of these nuggets, more meme-worthy chestnuts to chew on.

Alas, no. If you’re looking to be uplifted as a writer, this probably isn’t the movie for you.

So what exactly does Wonder Boys communicate to the writer? What fruit hangs on this particular tree that will nourish the budding (or fully bloomed) writer? How about this:

  1. Never, EVER, compare yourself to other writers.
  2. Don’t smoke pot while writing.
  3. Don’t take past success seriously or for granted.
  4. Be mindful of the blind dog in the hall.
  5. Always, always, always use a condom.

 

Q is that writer we all dream of being. From Grady Tripp’s voice-over narration when Q is first introduced:

He was rich and famous; he completed a novel every eighteen months. I hated him.

Grady is more like the rest of us. Whether we’ve had much success or not, we know what it looks and smells like, and we can’t help but harbor a little honest loathing for those writers who make it look easy.

In many ways, Wonder Boys is a cautionary tale warning us against the dangers of writing, the pitfalls of being too much of a writer too much of the time. It almost seems to be more about the psychoses of the writer, as opposed to the actual writing life itself. Depression, alcoholism, drug use, unprotected and ill-advised sex. Or, for those of the Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Thompson persuasion, perhaps those are some of writing’s perks.

Ah well.

But there’s plenty more here than Q’s almost painfully true speech; plenty to ponder, to argue, to ingest and digest and learn.

When past success only reminds you how currently unsuccessful you are:

Hannah Green (to Grady as they dance platonically at a dark bar): “I’ve been rereading The Arsonist’s Daughter. It’s so beautiful, Grady. So natural. It’s like all of your sentences always existed, just waiting up there in style heaven for you to fetch them down.”

How does a writer respond to something like that? Sure, it’s phrased nicely, and who wouldn’t want to hear that their prose has celestial origin? But here’s the thing, boys and girls: We know it’s not true. And while we might be proud of something we wrote (and more than a little chuffed that someone truly liked it), all it does is remind us how wooden our current work is; how flat and one-dimensional and wholly uninspired. It doesn’t matter that it’s also not necessarily true that our current work sucks, but it’s how we feel a lot of the time, and reminding us of our past successes is not always what we want to hear.

If we need proof beyond his shambling, grizzled, pot-smoking, pink-robed visage that Grady is spiraling downward, we only need laugh at the efforts on his new book. But it’s a painful laughter, because while the scene is funny it’s also tragic.

Grady’s voice-over: It started out as a small book. Probably 250 – 300 pages. It had gotten a little larger in scope and the ending kept getting further away. But the ending was there. I knew it. I could almost see it.

“A little larger,” he says. The voice-over leads into a shot of Grady rolling a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter. He types 261 at the top. There’s a brief pause and then he adds another 1 to the page number, making it 2,611.

It had gotten a little larger in scope…

2,611 single-spaced pages.

And we groan. Why do we groan?

  1. Because a manuscript that large is horrifying.
  2. Because a manuscript that long can’t possibly be good.
  3. Because we secretly wish we had the delicious gall to write something that huge.

 

Later, when James Leer sees the, uh, scope of Grady’s work-in-progress:

James (speaking of the other creative writing students): “Some of the kids thought you were blocked.”

Grady: “I don’t believe in writer’s block.”

James: “No kidding.”

The image of this 2,611 whopper of an unfinished book goes beyond funny to a marker of Grady’s borderline insanity, because the truth we see elsewhere in the film is that Grady has basically given up on writing, on being a writer and what it may or may not have meant to him at one time. We have this exchange, when James bemoans that all the kids in the creative writing class hate him:

Grady: “All the kids in the workshop hate you because right now you’re ten times the writer anyone of them will ever be.”

James: “My stuff stinks. You said so yourself last night to your friend Crabtree.”

Grady: “I didn’t mean it like that. And what does it matter what I think? I mean, what does it matter what anybody thinks? Most people don’t think, James. If they do, it’s not about writing. Books. They don’t mean anything. Not to anybody. Not anymore.”

This from the man who later has this to say after his 2,000-plus pages of manuscript go swirling out into the river:

Oola: “What was it about, your book? What was the story?”

Grady: “I don’t know.”

Crabtree: “What he means is, it’s difficult to distill the essence of a book sometimes, because it lives in the mind.”

Vernon: “But you gotta know what it was about, right? If you didn’t know what it was about, why were you writing it?”

Grady: “I couldn’t stop.”

Now we’ve crossed the border from the land of passion into the dark territory of addiction.

Books don’t mean anything to anyone anymore.

Why are you writing?

Because I can’t stop.

Later, when rescuing James from his parents’ basement (yeah, there’s a story there), Grady and Crabtree stumble on a sheet of paper rolled into James’s typewriter, a piece he was working on when they came for him; a piece where he is clearly writing about his literary hero, Professor Grady Tripp:

It was then the boy understood that his hero’s true injuries lay in a darker place. His heart, once capable of inspiring others so completely, could no longer inspire so much as itself. It beat now only out of habit. It beat now only because it could.

(Why are you writing?)

(Because I can’t stop.)

Excuse me while I blot a bit of cold sweat off my forehead.

 

There’s much more to learn from Wonder Boys, but again, context is everything.

On the writer’s relationship with his or her editor: “I sweat blood for five years and he corrects my spelling.”

On James’s dark brilliance as a writer: “He respects us enough to forget us. And that takes courage.”

On the power of words to seduce: “She was a junkie for the printed word. Lucky for me, I manufactured her drug of choice.”

Watch the movie and see for yourself. Then watch it again. Then I dare you not to watch it one more time.

 

Why Bother:

There’s a dark side to writing; maybe we need to remember that. More importantly, maybe we need to allow that darkness to inform us now and then. I’m not suggesting we all don our pink robes, stop shaving, and roll a joint or two (although, to each his/her own).

Maybe I’m simply saying: keep writing. Let that manuscript bloat up to a thousand or so pages, maybe two thousand, then don’t be afraid to let it go the way of migrating geese. It might come back, in bits and pieces—hopefully just the good pieces—and maybe what you’re left with is nothing more than gratitude that you didn’t stop writing. Maybe, when all is said and done, that stack of pages is the only thing anchoring you to this planet. That, if nothing else, is reason enough.

Why do we write?

Because we can’t stop.

 

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 Quills

 

Final Thoughts:

James: They treat me like a freak!

Grady: Well, you are a freak, James. All right? Welcome to the club.

 

 

Comments
  1. jamesrovira says:

    Good overview of the film. I saw it once years ago and now want to see it again. First time I saw it, I was thinking about educators as context: what does it mean to be an educator? The film was a little disappointing on that end the first time I saw it. It’s just about letting genius take its course and helping it get hooked up… sexually and professionally. BUT I bet I see something else in it next time…

    I don’t get the blind dog reference, but it’s probably been too long since I’ve seen the film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mott342 says:

      Same here. I saw it years ago and didn’t think that much about it. Watched it a couple weeks ago and absolutely loved it. Watched it again last week and found more nuggets. It’s just one of those comfy films that’s a fun place to be. Like when Maguire’s character is smoking pot and drinking booze on the couch of Tripp’s ex-in-laws and they walk in. A few minutes later (in the background) the ex-mother-in-law is feeding James cookies and hot cocoa. Lots of little gem moments like that.

      The blind dog…named Poe…yes, that’s actually a central plot element and so fun to experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. elissalynch says:

    I like your review style, Mott. Very authentic :). Would love to feature your reviews in our weekly curated email digest that goes out to thousands of people.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. jamesrovira says:

    AH SHOOT — it’s not on Netflix and only available on Prime for purchase ($12.99). I’m going to have to look for it at used bookstores.

    Like

  4. jamesrovira says:

    Yo — as I promised months and months ago, I have finally rewatched the film. And yes, I agree, it’s a great watch. I think I somewhat disliked it on first watch because it had a meandering plot, and watching it again, of course it did — that was the point. I think Hannah’s comments on that 2611 page novel written by a writer with writer’s block summed up the point of the film and the character: he wasn’t making a decision.

    The movie was plotless and chaotic because the protagonist’s life was reactive. The film began to move toward an end as the protagonist started making a series of decisions: to tell his dept. chair that he was in love with his wife; to give away his pot to the janitor; to give away the Monroe coat to the lovely pregnant waitress; to turn down the student who was interested in him and pursue a woman closer to his age and education instead; etc.

    Alternate ending: he could have told Hannah to find the story in those 2611 pages and cross everything else out, and then he would just have to write a real ending for the story that she found (if it wasn’t already in there) and publish it, giving her serious editing credit. But that would have been a repetition of his previous, failed marriage, which was to another beautiful woman much younger than he, which may well have been one of a number of them.

    Choosing the woman he did was choosing against repetition. More importantly, it wasn’t just accepting whatever was at hand and bright and shiny — it was really choosing something for life.

    I think that the film doesn’t understand teaching, though, and I think that was another reason why I didn’t like it at first: it was set in a school with a prof. as the protagonist but it wasn’t really about teaching. But it was about writing: how the protagonist was writing (or not writing) his life just like he was writing (or not writing for 2611 pages) his novel.

    That whole thing about not being able to teach writing? It misunderstands the question. What you can’t teach are ideas, imagination, inspiration. Those things by themselves aren’t writing, though. Writing is also funneling all of that into a coherent product that avoids not just spelling errors but gross self-indulgence — like Hannah saw in that 2611 page novel. What you can teach is judgment, focus, plot, basic writing skills and conventions, etc. You as a writer have educated yourself a great deal over the last couple decades, but you’ve been educated through your own reading and exercising your judgment. Writing courses (good ones) do the same thing in a somewhat accelerated fashion.

    I think the film also presented three archetypes (sterotypes?) for writers and pit them against one another:

    The productive workhorse, who is often seen as shallow (remember that Tobey M’s character laughed out loud at the second sentence of this guy’s speech).

    The Hemingwayesque, unproductive, tortured Hank Moody soul (the protagonist).

    The up and coming genius (Maguire’s character, who had a mind that worked like James Joyce’s in its retention of thousands of small details).

    I think it ultimately says that disposition is the only difference among the three, not talent, and perhaps a balance between these three characteristics is best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jamesrovira says:

      Ugh… can you edit “teaching” to “teach” for me in that paragraph you know here? Thanks.

      Liked by 2 people

      • mott342 says:

        Great insight, Jim. Funny thing: Hannah’s observation that he wasn’t making decisions was actually a huge part of my notes and I meant to touch on that. I had noted much the same as you, that things began to change (in life [the film] and in his writing) when he started making decisions. I guess my own decision-making process decided to leave that out and focus on more existential matters for the limited blog space. 🙂 I will definitely bring that element back in when this series goes to book form, wherein I will be extending all these reviews to add more meat. Good stuff, man. Thanks for reading. (And I fixed “teaching.”)

        Liked by 1 person

      • jamesrovira says:

        Thanks, man. I think the bottom line for me was that the first time I saw it, I was looking for a teaching movie, and the second time, I was looking for a writing movie. It delivered on the second, but not on the first (but it wasn’t obligated to either).

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s