I suppose I've read the first half of more novels than just about anybody who doesn't work in publishing. Whenever a movie comes along that's based on a novel, I feel compelled to give the author his or her say before turning things over to the director, but I hate knowing the ending in advance. Besides, with most novels, especially contemporary novels, I'm ready to bail after a couple of hundred pages anyway. Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys was different, so beautifully written and casually perceptive that I kept wanting to read the next sentence, the next paragraph. Then, about halfway through the book, I started to get this weird feeling that Chabon had no idea where he was going, which made sense given that his main character, a middle-aged novelist named Grady Tripp, has no idea where he was going. Chabon had been something of a wonder boy himself, of course. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, published when he was only 24, catapulted him to the literary equivalent of fame. But what to do for an encore? After much typing, Chabon turned in a 672-page draft of something called Fountain City, which is yet to be published. Then he sat back down and wrote Wonder Boys, a novel about a novelist who can't write a novel--correction, a novelist who can't stop writing a novel. Like Fellini with 8Þ, Chabon worked through his creative block by making his creative block the subject of his next creation. And Grady Tripp, who's trapped in a years-long funk, does the same. A coming-of-middle-age story, Wonder Boys is about what happens to promising young writers when they aren't that young anymore, or that promising. With the new movie version of Chabon's novel, director Curtis Hanson may be trying to ward off a sophomore slump of his own. L.A. Confidential, his last film, carried him to the top of most critics' Best Ten lists (not mine), and though he's been around a while, directing so-so thrillers, Wonder Boys may be his attempt to prove that L.A. Confidential was no fluke, and that he can handle comedy as well as he can handle film noir. I suppose he can; then again, I wasn't that impressed with the way he handled film noir. Hanson and scriptwriter Steve Kloves have captured the sweet melancholy of Chabon's novel, the way life can sometimes feel like one thing after another, with no connecting thread to speak of. But they've also made a movie that has no...well, no connecting thread. Where's the book's spine? The handsomely disheveled Michael Douglas is Grady, a professor of creative writing whose third wife just left him and whose fourth wife (Frances McDormand) is still married to the head of the English Department (Richard Thomas). She's also the school's chancellor and pregnant with Grady's child. He loves her, apparently, or at least he would love her if he could see through the metaphorical haze of the book he's forever writing and the literal haze of the pot he's forever smoking. When the movie opens, it's WordFest, the university's annual book-chat hootenanny, which brings Grady's editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), to town. Crabtree, who managed to pick up a tuba-toting transvestite on the flight to Pennsylvania, wants to know where Grady's manuscript is, a topic Grady will spend most of the movie evading. That tuba-toting transvestite offers a clue to the farcical streak that runs through Chabon's novel, a streak that has become a streaky blur in the movie. Wonder Boys is, at best, mordantly funny; at worst, it's downright depressing. Take James Leer (the effective, if not quite affective, Tobey Maguire), Grady's most promising student. James may or may not have written a novel of his own, and it may or may not be a masterpiece, but we'll never know because he's 1) a compulsive liar and 2) about as emotional as a tree stump. Or is he just a novelist? The movie consists mostly of Grady and James driving around town with a dead dog in the trunk of the car. The dog, which belongs to Grady's mistress, was shot with a gun that James insisted was only a cap gun mere moments before the fateful blasts.
Call it a shaggy-dead-dog story. Like life, Wonder Boys doesn't even try to make sense most of the time. Alas, it's not nearly as funny as it thinks it is, or wants to be, or thinks it wants to be. Mostly, it's sad--a cold, damp kind of sadness that seems to have seeped into everybody's bones. (It's so chilly outside, you can see their breath escaping from their mouths.) In the book, the sadness was transfigured by the sheer elegance of Chabon's prose. In the movie, it lingers in the snowy, sleety, rainy streets, forming little puddles of loneliness at everyone's feet. And it lingers in the performances, especially Maguire's. Not since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have the literary types rattled the bars of their cage with such aplomb. Listening to the racket, you'd almost think writing still mattered.