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For more than a decade, filmmaker Curtis Hanson cranked out implausible, exploitative thrillers: The Bedroom Window, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild. Then, two years ago, he outdid himself by co-scripting and directing L.A. Confidential, a smart, shapely adaptation of James Ellroy’s sprawling, densely layered—and seemingly unfilmable—novel about police corruption in ’50s Los Angeles. Now he’s taken on the challenge of bringing an even less cinematic book to the screen, Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, an episodic comedy about a middle-aged writer at the end of his tether. This new effort is, if anything, a cut above L.A. Confidential, which was nominated for nine Oscars. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Hanson’s next project was a screen version of Microsoft Word for Dummies.
Chabon himself is something of a wonder boy. He was just 23 when he wrote his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. The 1988 coming-of-age comedy about a recent college grad with conflicting loyalties to his male and female lovers and his gangster father announced the appearance of one of the most enjoyable and eloquent writers since Vladimir Nabokov. Chabon’s plot, a tale of little consequence, served as a vehicle for his stylish prose, which combines evocative details, unexpected metaphors, and exquisite rhythms.
Chabon then labored for more than five years on an ambitious follow-up novel, Fountain City. The manuscript grew exponentially but never quite coalesced. Ultimately, Chabon abandoned his bloated epic and made this frustrating experience the subject of the swiftly written Wonder Boys (1995), a rollicking, intermittently touching account of a hellish weekend endured by a novelist whose life and art have spun out of control. Unlike prevailing up-market fiction, Wonder Boys wasn’t the product of thesaurus-thumbing, historical research, or a race, class, and/or gender grudge. Chabon’s aim was pure pleasure, a goal that he achieved on every page.
Movies about writers are risky ventures. What could be less entertaining or enlightening than watching someone sitting alone at a keyboard, usually with cigarettes and booze close at hand? Think of the shambles Hollywood has made of the lives of the Brontes (Devotion), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Beloved Infidel), and Jack Kerouac (Heart Beat) or, at the other end of the literary food chain, Jacqueline Susann (Isn’t She Great). One of the few writers to sustain interest as a screen protagonist was Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman in Julia, but that story turned out to be based on an experience that Hellman stole from the life of another woman and claimed as her own.
Shrewdly, Hanson signed Steve Kloves to adapt Chabon’s freewheeling narrative. Kloves previously succeeded with episodic material in The Fabulous Baker Boys, an original screenplay that he wrote and directed. In that memorable romantic comedy, set in the tacky world of lounge musicians, Kloves compensated for the absence of a propulsive plot by infusing each scene with a distinctive mood and tone, then linking them together like beads. He employs a similar strategy in transposing Chabon’s novel, preserving much of the author’s dialogue and characterization. Hanson has respected the resulting screenplay by filming it without a trace of directorial self-indulgence. There’s not a single shot designed to persuade us that there’s a genius at work behind the camera.
Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a university creative-writing teacher whose third wife has just abandoned him and whose second novel—2,612 manuscript pages and counting—refuses to cohere. During Wordfest, the school’s yearly literary conference, Grady has to deal with, among others, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), his stoned, hedonistic editor; Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), the married university chancellor with whom he’s been having an affair; James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a talented writing student with pathological tendencies; and Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), another student, who has eyes for Grady in spite of his weaknesses. Fueled by grass and liquor, Grady hops (quite literally, because of a leg wound) from crisis to crisis, trying and failing to please everyone, including himself.
Because much of the fun of Wonder Boys depends on surprises, I won’t say anything more about the plot, except to indicate that it also involves a dog’s corpse, a tuba-playing transvestite, and the fur-collared jacket that Marilyn Monroe wore on the day she married Joe DiMaggio. But I can tell you something about the cast, which is clearly inspired by the material. I never expected in this lifetime to have a favorable word to say about Michael Douglas, whose pudding face and whining voice have made him the unlikeliest of leading men. But he nails Grady from the very first frame. With a shock of gray hair tumbling onto his lined, sweaty forehead, glasses myopically perched on the tip of his nose, and a perpetual five o’ clock shadow, he’s a study in desperate dissipation—Phil Donahue on a long bender. With this performance, Douglas rightfully lays claim to the Best Actor Oscar that he didn’t deserve for Wall Street.
Maguire’s arresting, otherworldly presence ideally suits James, who inhabits a realm somewhere between fantasy and reality. Playing a drug-addled bisexual isn’t much of a stretch for Downey; it’s the role he’s been preparing for all his life, and he executes it with ease. Holmes is sweetly appealing in her few scenes as a young woman far more mature than the flummoxed adults around her. Although McDormand puts a fine comic edge on Sara’s dialogue, I don’t think she’s well-cast as Grady’s mistress. Acerbic and somewhat stringy, she lacks the sensuality to bring sufficient chemistry to her love/hate relationship with the floundering novelist.
Fans of Chabon’s novel will be disappointed by the excision of one of its liveliest episodes: Grady’s participation in his estranged wife’s dogpatch-intellectual family’s Passover Seder. (Kloves had little choice but to jettison this section, which is only tangentially related to the book’s main narrative.) Although the movie was shot on location in Pittsburgh, little of the city’s distinctive ambience, a key element of both Chabon novels, comes through. A brief epilogue strikes me as just a tad too neat and sunny a resolution to the ramshackle life we’ve just witnessed.
So much for seeking minuscule flaws in an artfully made, consistently pleasurable movie, one of contemporary Hollywood’s rare entertainments for grown-ups. As an unrepentant product of the ’60s, I’m glad that Hanson has the courage to present pot smoking and Christian Coalition-defying sexuality without feeling the need to issue warnings like the Washington Post’s puritanical Family Filmgoer. I hope there are enough adult moviegoers left to repay Hanson’s trust that we are fully capable of distinguishing between healthy and self-destructive behaviors, and can sympathize with the foibles and fumbles of characters who fall far short of being moral exemplars.
The 1999 Sundance Festival jury should have thought twice before naming Eric Mendelsohn Best Director for his feature debut, Judy Berlin. Not because his movie isn’t well crafted—the performances and camerawork are first-rate—but because Mendelsohn’s decision to interject a narcissistic self-portrait into his screenplay spoils what could and should have been a haunting chamber film.
Judy Berlin opens with atmospheric shots of its suburban setting—Babylon, Long Island—at daybreak. Cinematographer Jeffrey Seckendorf’s autumnal, slightly grainy black-and-white compositions—closed shops, dark houses, a row of street lights sequentially extinguishing—evoke a precise place and time. This poetic mood is extended as we meet the film’s characters. Arthur Gold (Bob Dishy), a distracted principal facing the opening week of high school, tunes out his nattering wife, Alice (the late Madeline Kahn), who is becoming unhinged by her crumbling marriage and anxiety about aging. Divorcee Sue Berlin (Barbara Barrie), the mother of the title character, teaches at Arthur’s school and is excessively aware of his presence. Discombobulated Dolores Engler (Bette Henritze), a retired teacher with Alzheimer’s disease, returns to her old classroom, creating a disturbance that frays the faculty’s already edgy nerves.
Mendelsohn’s screenplay juxtaposes the fresh beginning of a school year with characters whose lives are running down. The actors inhabit their roles with muted eloquence, especially Barrie, whose lovely, lined face expresses the conflicting emotions that Sue can’t articulate. Michael Nicholas’ occasionally obtrusive but not inappropriate harpsichord-based score reinforces the screenplay’s melancholy tone. Had Mendelsohn been satisfied to sustain this neo-Chekhovian mood piece, Judy Berlin would have deserved all the awards it could muster.
But, like a waiter’s thumb in an otherwise appetizing bowl of soup, a character threatens to ruin the film and ultimately succeeds. The Golds’ 30-year-old son, David (Aaron Harnick, Barrie’s real-life child), has moved back to his parents’ home after apparently failing at a filmmaking career in California. In the annoying tradition of filmmakers’ self-portraits, he’s superior and mopey, concealing an impacted tenderness for his family and hometown that he’s unable to communicate. Aimless and dejected, he wanders about Babylon bumping into several high school acquaintances, including Judy Berlin (Edie Falco), a dim but irrepressibly optimistic former classmate preparing to depart for Los Angeles in the vain hope of finding work as a movie actress.
As Judy Berlin progresses, David and Judy assume prominence at the expense of the older, more affecting characters. Simultaneously, we’re offered a lethal dose of symbolism. Babylon’s landscape is transformed by an impossibly protracted solar eclipse that begins halfway through the movie and continues through its fadeout. In a cheesy touch, one of David’s school chums suggests that he should make a movie about their hometown and include the eclipse as a metaphor. David scoffs at this notion—Mendelsohn’s transparent ploy to defuse criticism of his blatant contrivance.
In a closing scene, David meets Judy at the train station as she begins her escape from Babylon. He breaks down, confessing how much he loves the town and its inhabitants, how he wishes he could preserve each fading moment. Judy perkily suggests that he can defy time by making a movie—naturally, starring her. Which, of course, is the film we’ve just seen. It’s distressing, if not outright insulting, to find Mendelsohn, in his first feature, turning his back on the sympathetic mature characters he’s created in order to conclude with a premature tribute to himself. CP