Tuesday, February 25, 2020

5 Off My Head: Wonder Boys Wonder Lines

One of my top ten of all time favorite movies just turned 20 this past weekend -- Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys, adapted from Michael Chabon's novel and starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire and Frances McDormand and Katie Holmes and Robert Downey Jr. -- oh and, lest we forget an Oola, this week's banner woman Jane Adams! -- the movie boasts career best work from several of them and is just a warm blanket I slip on whenever I need that sort of thing. For any Humanities fetishist it's the Dream, the Platonic Ideal -- small college town, snow, characters... to paragraph Michael Douglas's character, lucky for me this movie manufactures my drug of choice.
If you've never seen it, change that immediately, but here's the gist: Grady Tripp (Douglas) is n English Professor at a small New England Liberal Arts College. His wife has just left him, his mistress Sara (McDormand), who's also married to the chancellor of the college, is pregnant, and he's found himself caught up in the dramas of a talented young gay writer James Leer (Maguire) in his class. All of this comes to head as an annual literary festival, WordFest, descends on the sleepy hamlet, bringing Grady's agent (RDJ) into town as well to nag at Grady about his long unfinished book.

Yes I wrote that plot description without looking up a good goddamned thing -- this is a movie I've seen so many times I could narrate it from start to finish. And it's the perfect movie for that since narration is both a device used by Hanson within the film (Grady narrates the film telling his story) as well as a subject in the actual plot -- the characters, who are mostly writers, often begin randomly narrating their lives, a sort of distancing themselves from it which gets them into trouble more often than not.

Anyway did I mention this movie is perfect? It is perfect. My love for it is perfect, every frame is perfect, and there are about a billion characters in it that are each and every single one perfect. On that note I figured why only give love to the well-known bits -- for a second I considered doing a list of just line readings by Frances McDormand, who is absolute genius in this, but I want to spread the love. So here's something a little more random, as is my predisposition, and yes again I rattled each of these off from memory, because me and this movie are LIKE THIS. (I am wildly gesturing a big hug.)

5 of my Favorite Line Readings from 
Cameo Characters in Wonder Boys

"I mean, Jesus, what is it with you Catholics?"
Sneered by James Leer's classmate in the opening scene, this is how his contemporaries delicately review his work. And this is the moment that slips me right back into that frame of mind, that place, those war-zone classrooms. I'm hooked from then on. Oh I know this place!

"Oh right. The Book.
I hope it's really good, Grady."
The great Philip Bosco playing Grady's soon to be ex-wife's father, devastating Grady's entire self-obsessed world-view with one withering read -- The Book. That fucking thing. 

"So Professor Tripp, is all that stuff true, about Errol Flynn? How he used to put paprika... on his dick? To make it like, you know, more stimulating for the chick?"
Traxler (played by our beloved Alan Tudyk of Firefly fame) is giving Grady a ride and just randomly drops this question out of nowhere (turns out he noticed a biography of Flynn in the backpack Grady's holding) and I promise you -- this line is all I hear whenever I have seen Errol Flynn for the past 20 years. And Grady's flummoxed response, where he makes up a long list of things that Flynn did indeed rub on his dick (ground lamb!), always makes me howl.

"Tony. Now that I'm home."
The character of "Miss Antonia Sloviak" played by Michael Cavadias is one of the pieces of the film that's definitely dated in the past 20 years. She's repeatedly referred to as a "transvestite" and played as a visual punchline for awhile, but I think (and you can tell me if I'm wrong about this) the film makes up for it with this scene where Grady gives her a ride home -- everybody's always giving everybody rides in this movie, which also rings very true to my college experience -- after RDJ decides to chase Tobey's twink ass instead. She takes off the wig and make-up and Cavadias, in this minute or so of screen-time, paints a fascinating mini-portrait of what Antonia / Tony's life must be like, returning to this liberal town that's as close-minded as any place in this country. Like so many of these people you want to follow Tony off when he gets out the car and find out Antonia's story.

"So what was it about? Your book.
What was the story?"
Never forget an Oola! My beloved Jane Adams (just two years post-Happiness) shows up early in the film as the pregnant waitress as the local pub with a name-tag that says OOLA in big white letters, and then not again until almost the end, as everything has just collapsed around Grady. His book's blown to the wind! And Jane Adams, bless her to the heavens, cuts through the shrieking and chaos and weirdness and delivers this line with such warmth and friendliness, bringing us right to what matters. The Book. Oola more than earns that Marilyn Monroe jacket and her own happy ending.

So what are your thoughts on Wonder Boys?


Scott said...

I like the book much more than I like movie, but there are parts here that I agree are very good - like the look Jane Adams is giving through the window (tiny role but wonderful performane) and Bosco's performance and definitely that car ride home. The film includes what's definitely my favorite Tobey Maguire performance, and Michael Douglas does strong work too.

verbocity said...

The world would so much better if there were more Jane Adams.

joel65913 said...

I'm not quite as devout as you but I love the film as well. The performances are all wonderful but what really sells it for me is the look. Every location just feels right and the snow falling when they are outside the greenhouse is just such a beautiful image.

I love Jane Adams as Oola too. She has small shoulders just like Marilyn Monroe! I doubt its the real jacket that MM has on in the photo with DiMaggio but the replication is terrific. It looks in great condition but not new. I think that's part of why I love the film so, it gets the details right.

It also contains my favorite Michael Douglas performance, I've always favored his more shaggy dog parts than that slickster period he went through. I also uses Tobey Maguire recessive personality to its best advantage.

Mark Alexander said...

Seeing Maguire and a young(er) Downey Jr. in bed together is worth the price of admission.

Justin said...

omg I had suuuuuch a moment with this movie. Love it love it. Watching it is like a comforting hug from an old friend.

yourtherhoda said...

and beginning a love of michael chabon's work that continues today.

Anonymous said...

Damn. I avoided this movie because I hate Michael Douglas. I guess I need to watch it now!

zj said...

I just rewatched this movie. Annual winter tradition for that cozy self-obsessed liberal arts town feeling, like wearing a cableknit sweater.

Michael cusumano said...

I've got tenure.

Tom said...

"How about we try that again?"