Wonderful movie

"Wonder Boys" is still the best -- and most moving -- comedy of the year. Director Curtis Hanson and novelist Michael Chabon explain why Hollywood gave them a second chance to prove it.

Published November 10, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

At a time when comedy rules the box office, the best comedy of the year opened in February, won rave reviews -- and disappeared. Its title is "Wonder Boys." Its story about a bumbling middle-aged author confronting and transcending faded glory gives the lie to the Fitzgerald quote "There are no second acts in American lives." In a rare move for a big studio, Paramount has given "Wonder Boys" a second act. The movie reopens in eight cities this week.

Curtis Hanson's first film since his much-honored "L.A. Confidential" is about lead characters who range in age from 20 to the mid-50s. But right now "Wonder Boys" is the most youthful comedy around. It's the most open in spirit, the most generous and bighearted.

The hero is a pot-smoking creative writing professor and one-time hot novelist (Michael Douglas) -- a head in over his head. On the weekend of a campus literary bash called WordFest, he must respond to a kaleidoscope of stress points. These include the departure of his latest wife; the pregnancy of his married lover (Frances McDormand); the erratic, possibly suicidal behavior of an enigmatic prize student (Tobey Maguire); the allure of another student (Katie Holmes) who boards in his house; and the visit of his bouncy but beleaguered editor (Robert Downey Jr.), who has been waiting for our hero's new novel to halt his own professional tailspin. The author, who suffers from the verbal runs, not writer's block, is currently on Page 2,611.

Along the way, he winds up with a dead dog on his hands and enjoys a succession of memorable brief encounters with characters ranging from a towering, tuba-toting transvestite to a pregnant drink slinger with the unforgettable name "Oola." In general, he receives an unsentimental, unconventional education about what it means to be a lover, friend and father figure. What we get, thanks to Hanson, his screenwriter, Steve Kloves, his superb cast and Michael Chabon's lyrical source novel, is an exhilarating blend of rumpled romance and off-kilter farce. It's a bildungsroman with hemp buds -- about men and women who slouch toward maturity in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

Pittsburgh in a wet winter, in the lens of cinematographer Dante Spinotti, becomes a fairy-tale location, fit not just for lowdown campus comedy but also for eerie musings in the tumbling lights and shadows of snowy evenings. As the characters experience pratfalls on their way to redemption, with a succession of singer-songwriters articulating their slapstick odysseys on the soundtrack (including Bob Dylan, who contributes a vibrant original song, "Things Have Changed"), Hanson and company achieve a fablelike combination of clarity and surprise. (That's what eluded Cameron Crowe in "Almost Famous," another critically lauded movie that harks back to the no-holds-barred filmmaking of the late '60s and early '70s.)

"Wonder Boys" is about characters doing what may be harder for contemporary Americans to do than anything else, as the events of these past few weeks illustrate: learning to make hard choices and stick by them. It succeeds because Hanson and Kloves committed to correct decisions early on, like making the comedy grow out of the characters and refusing to eliminate references to Genet or Thomas Babington Macaulay out of fear audiences might not get them. At the same time, they didn't use literary wit as a crutch.

Unfortunately, a year ago, Paramount made all the wrong moves. As Hanson told me over the phone last week, there had been "internal discussion" among Paramount's marketing and distribution strategists as well as Hanson and his powerful co-producer, Scott Rudin, about the opening date of "Wonder Boys." The various parties disagreed about whether to put the movie into theaters last Christmas, hold it as counterprogramming for the summer or hold it even longer -- until, well, now.

Paramount finally decided to open it in February, a week after the announcement of Academy Award nominations. The two front-runners for last year's Oscars turned out to be "American Beauty" and "The Cider House Rules," which were aimed at the same audience as "Wonder Boys." (Indeed, "The Cider House Rules" also starred Maguire.) Backed by stellar DreamWorks and Miramax publicity, these films had lots of box-office life left in them.

Still, the lackluster "Wonder Boys" campaign might have sunk the movie even if it hadn't squared off against such stiff competition. Faced with the challenge of promoting a multiflavored film with a cast of Oscar-winning veterans and up-and-comers, the Paramount team resorted to selling it as a star vehicle for Douglas -- a wacky comedy about a middle-aged guy who in the ads looked like either Michael J. Pollard (according to Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal) or Elmer Fudd (according to Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times). The trailers and TV commercial featured the dead dog, as if the film were a canine spinoff of the "Weekend at Bernie's" movies.

Within a couple of weeks, Hanson says, Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing, "who championed this film from the beginning," and vice-chairman Rob Friedman, head of marketing and distribution, told him, "We could have done better by you." They soon began talking about pulling the movie back and holding it until this fall. "They took the extraordinary step," says Hanson, "of canceling all the ancillary stuff -- the video release and airplane and hotel showings -- because without canceling it there wouldn't be anything special about this reissue. Studios don't like to do that, because it adds up to a lot of money, and it's free money: They don't have to spend anything to get it."

More important, Paramount may now get it. With the moviemakers' input, the studio has created new publicity tools that bring the film's infectious warmth to the fore. The new trailer does feature two fleeting shots of the dog, but otherwise it takes a blessedly different approach, highlighting critical raves and rewarding each top-billed player with a moment in the spotlight. (It wisely includes a snatch of Dylan's resonating song.) The new poster and print ad follow suit. Their casual portraiture recalls the loose and amiable campaigns for Hal Ashby's '70s films (like "The Landlord," "The Last Detail" and "Shampoo") -- movies Hanson used as benchmarks, especially for the way they established an easy, nonjudgmental relationship between a movie's viewers and its characters.

Will the revamped publicity tools work wonders for this marvelous picture? Well, at least they won't hurt. But what may sell the movie now is the mysterious rightness of its timing. When I saw it with a handful of friends the week before the election, it felt even more refreshing than it did last February. In the frenzied final days of the presidential campaign, this movie offered two hours of undiluted enjoyment and sanity, a vision of America in which every character is given the right to be foolish, uproarious and touching, no matter his or her sexual orientation, race or creed. But "Wonder Boys" has more to offer than a neo-countercultural gestalt. It's about a guy who realizes that good intentions and warm fuzzies are not enough to fulfill a writer and a man. In his art as well as his life, he has to figure out his destination -- only then does he have a shot at being happy and productive en route.

Michael Chabon, in an instance of art imitating career, wrote most of the novel's first draft in a mere five months -- after laboring for five years on his own unfinished behemoth. "I invented a character who could take the mojo off and exorcise the specter of what was happening to me," he says. So when a movie producer began sniffing around for the rights to this highly personal book, Chabon says he was, "to be frank, curious. All along, a chain of individuals thought this could make a good movie. It became Scott Rudin's mission. Then he brought in Steve Kloves, and his script persuaded Hanson. At each step, I kept thinking, 'Why do these guys think this is going to work?' I mean, one of the things I thought going in was that no major Hollywood star would want to be part of it. I was never persuaded that it would happen until Michael Douglas said he would play the major part."

Kloves, who wrote and directed "The Fabulous Baker Boys" back in 1989, went into creative hibernation after his next film, "Flesh and Bone" (1993), which he describes as "a complicated, emotionally exhausting movie to make." But Rudin (an old friend of Kloves' wife) kept trying to snag his interest with juicy movie material. "Scott can do 'Shaft,'" Kloves explains, "but next he's buying Michael Cunningham's 'The Hours.' He knows there's a certain stratum of talent that responds to good writing, and he wants to be in the game with these people." When the producer sent "Wonder Boys" Kloves' way, he jumped for it -- "I thought it was a great ride, and I loved the language Michael Chabon used to spin it out." It would be Kloves' first adaptation.

Bringing Kloves to the project gave it a writer who had, in screen terms, as distinctive a personality as Chabon's. "We had lunch, we talked, we exchanged e-mails," Chabon recalls. "But I'm not sure how much I helped. I tried to tell Steve it was his script and whatever he did was going to be fine. I didn't view this in any possessive way, but as something crazy and lucky that had happened to me." Chabon knew just how lucky when Kloves dared to add a character. In the book and movie there's a mysterious African-American -- in appearance a knockoff of James Brown -- who insists that the hero has stolen his car, a '66 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible. "Steve gave this guy a waitress girlfriend," says Chabon, "and it really worked. It was a Steve Kloves kind of character and relationship, but she fit into the whole world of 'Wonder Boys,' and she actually plays a small role in resolving things."

The screenwriter also made her pregnant -- which in the movie extends the parade of expectant mothers and surrogate children who tug at the protagonist's heart and mind, especially when the screen goes white and he falls in and out of fainting "episodes." Kloves says he thought the waitress's pregnancy would help keep her vivid. It's one of the film's many examples of serendipity meeting craft and creating poetry.

Kloves found himself growing more protective over Chabon's words than he ever did over his own. But eventually he practiced major surgery on the novel, most spectacularly when he excised the presence of the hero's wife and changed her from one of several Korean orphans adopted by Jewish parents to the daughter of Pennsylvania WASPs. A mock-epic Passover seder was one of the book's comic highlights, yet Chabon himself could see it had to go: "It was just taking up too much screen time -- it's hard enough to tell the story of one relationship well, and the movie is telling the story of two relationships, between the writer and his lover and the writer and his protégé."

Kloves harbored no illusions that his screenplay would ever get the green light from a studio: "I sympathize with people who read 12 scripts a weekend. To them, my script must have seemed like a mutant -- a mutant survivor of the late '60s and early '70s. It must have been like the prize in the Cracker Jack box, but the prize you didn't want. If there were people in the studio who liked it, I don't think there were many who loved it. I have to give them credit, because they allowed Curtis to go out and make this movie. But I'm sure Paramount looked at the book and thought, 'Good God, what is this? There's something to offend everybody.' Then Scott hires a guy like me, who is not going to make it more commercial. So the studio is on the hook with this project, but they want it to die on the hook. But it keeps not dying. And when Curtis enters the picture, it is clear that it's not dying."

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Hanson was coming off "L.A. Confidential," one of the best-loved Hollywood movies of the '90s, a neo-noir cop movie that was more like a historical epic about the promise and corruption of postwar Southern California. It, too, was a group performance piece -- a constellation of star turns from people who weren't yet stars (Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce) or had been character actors (Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell) or had flashed and collapsed like supernovas (Kim Basinger). Although Basinger won an Oscar, as did Hanson and Brian Helgeland for their adaptation of James Ellroy's novel, the movie mostly lost out to "Titanic," and never gained the financial success it deserved. But, as Hanson says, "all the studios who never wanted to make it because it was period, and noir, and an ensemble piece, now said that if they had, they could have done a better job distributing it." It gave Hanson, Kloves says, "enormous sting" in Hollywood. To Hanson what mattered was creative freedom and the ability to attract another dream ensemble cast.

After one meeting, it was clear to Hanson and Kloves that they were on the same gleefully modulating wavelength. "Part of what attracted me to the book and script," says Hanson, "was that drug use and adultery and lying and thieving, all these things that you may be expected to respond to in a politically correct or moralistic way, were presented as part of the natural human behavior of the people." But if Hanson is like the movie's hero in his acceptance of quirks, misdemeanors and frailties, he is most intent on creating films that can grab an audience and hold it. In the course of a collaboration that spread over a year and a half, Hanson and Kloves kept shoehorning in bits and pieces of Chabon's writing. Their main goal was to have the meaning of the tale come out as their hero runs an existential steeplechase that starts with the WordFest kickoff party and ends at its grand finale.

Both Hanson and Kloves view big-screen storytelling as a succession of emotion-charged images as well as propulsive scenes. I wasn't surprised to find that the shooting script contained many of the most spontaneous visual moments -- like the looks that cloud Maguire's face or race across McDormand's -- written out exactly on the page. Still, even this draft doesn't include the voice-over narration, which the filmmakers kept tweaking to the end, or the brisk, suggestive ending. What you get on-screen is an enthralling balance of density and dynamism.

Hanson insists that the movie is not about writing: "It's about what writing is about." Yet from the beginning, when you hear Douglas read a student's story and then start his narration over it while lines of poetry dance across a blackboard, the film envelops you in the sensuality of words. Kloves says, "I always felt strong on this movie. That's because Curtis does the groundwork along with you. Unlike other directors, who throw ideas at you and ask you to write them out and show them, Curtis discusses them with you and helps you narrow down the options -- then you execute them. So somehow your stamina is not squandered. He knows how to talk to a writer."

Also how to talk to actors. When I spoke to Hanson before the film's premiere last February, he lighted up while rolling off the attributes of his cast: Douglas' startling "lightness," his ability to be deeply amusing without straining for laughs and the seductive timbre of his normal speaking voice; McDormand's capacity to convey, immediately, the "emotional heft and intellectual acumen" of a college chancellor who has been making love to Douglas while keeping a comfortable home for his department head (Richard Thomas), her husband; and Maguire's uncanny skill at being, simultaneously, "devious (he's a liar, a prevaricator) and weird (that's why the other kids in class don't like him), and also a talent who may emerge to be a young Truman Capote."

Perhaps his biggest coup was the casting of Downey, which made the character of the editor about 15 years younger than he is in the book. "I just thought friendship is more interesting when it's about people being cut from the same cloth, as opposed to sharing an experience like school together," says Hanson. "I also felt that having the editor younger, and in between Douglas and Maguire, would help make the point that this 'wonder boy' thing we were dealing with, of facing past success and future promise, cuts across generations. It's not about a middle-age crisis, and it's not just about a novelist. The trick there was to find an actor who was credible as an editor and could have the kind of bonhomie where you feel that he and his writer are drinking buddies and like to hang out together, and was also funny. I thought Downey's work in 'Chaplin' was absolute genius, and I liked him in so many things over the years. I was concerned -- I'd never met Robert and I'd heard the stories of his personal problems -- but he flew to Pittsburgh to sit down and talk about it and he was so forthright, owning up to his responsibility and also to his commitment to the work at hand, that I said let's go. And I never regretted it for an instant."

Chabon, who briefly visited the company in Pittsburgh, says, "I could tell, even with my tiny experience watching him on the set, that Curtis has an amazing way with actors. He is quiet and commanding -- not domineering but just completely running things, and asserting himself in a polite and decent way. He gives you the sense that he knows what he's doing, totally, and to me he was everything a movie director is supposed to be. He was like a Fitzgeraldian man of authority out of 'The Last Tycoon,' but as a director-producer, not a producer-executive."

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Chabon ended up seeing the finished film three times. "The first time, I saw it alone in a screening room -- not the most enjoyable way to see any movie, but especially not one in which I had so many expectations. The second time, I was surrounded by a thousand people laughing in the big theater on the Paramount lot, and I was able to relax and really enjoy myself. And the third time, I could appreciate the depth of the craftsmanship. You know how when you're relaxed with a movie, you let your mind range freely through it? Many things delighted me, from the titles on the bookshelves to small details of the performances. You know the scene where Douglas looks out the window at Frances McDormand as she's getting people in the cars to go to WordFest? She tells them to be careful because it's dangerous -- it's really 'slippy' out there. And saying 'slippy,' not 'slippery,' is a Pittsburgh-ism. I picked that up the third time, and I thought, 'What an amazing bit of ad-libbing in character!' She's such a great actress. I admired her in 'Almost Famous,' but I thought she was radiant in 'Wonder Boys.'"

Chabon says, "I feel bad that it didn't do better when it first opened; I felt personally responsible for all these talented people experiencing a box-office failure through no fault of their own." He regrets that, unlike the novel, the movie got a middle-age tag to it. But he's not surprised. He thinks that "if you market a movie off its reviews, that can skew it to older audiences. But why should all movies be about teenagers in halter tops? Anyway, the 'wonder boys' concept is harder to convey than a midlife crisis. And I think the casting of Douglas put a certain spin on it. As talented and successful and accomplished as he is -- and as brilliant a job as he does in the movie -- he's not an 'anti-star' the way his character is an antihero. But maybe if the marketing had been wilder and looser, if they found a way of saying the movie was a throwback to the glory days of Ashby and Altman, that would have been enough to change the expectations."

Although Paramount and Rudin did not respond to interview requests from Salon, Paramount vice-chairman Friedman has been practicing an odd form of spin control in print. He told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that the film hadn't been "ready in time" for the studio to do a 1999 Oscar campaign; the same article also stated (presumably with Friedman as the source) that the film didn't test well. Friedman previously declared to the Associated Press, "I think we all believed we produced the best campaign and gave the movie the best launch that was appropriate at the time."

Kloves disagrees. "I think it would be dishonest to say anything other than that the campaign was horrendous," he says. "When I first heard they were putting it out in the graveyard of pre-spring, I thought it was over. And you couldn't have gotten me to the movie they seemed to be promoting if you put a gun to my head -- and I am this movie's target audience. Look, it's their job to sell the movie. I know it can be a hard job, but, hey, our jobs are hard, too."

Hanson says the film was ready and did test well a year ago. What seems to frustrate him most is that "Wonder Boys" played well even to youthful members of his preview groups, but no one figured out how to get younger audiences to fill theater seats as paying customers. That's why Hanson is optimistic about the picture's rerelease. He hopes he'll get more play for Dylan's song and for the dazzling music video he shot for it. This prismatic, ticklish piece of work brings out the singer-songwriter's goofy wit and underlines his status as the ultimate wonder boy -- or maybe a wonder elder who retains his youthful glow by continually taking his art to the limit.

"The only film I can remember that had a successful big-studio rerelease is 'Bonnie and Clyde,'" Hanson recently told me. "And right around the time I talked to Sherry and Rob about our rerelease, American Movie Classics called about licensing some photos I took on the set of 'Bonnie and Clyde.' I considered that an omen." Dede Allen, who edited "Bonnie and Clyde," also edited "Wonder Boys."

At one point in "Wonder Boys," Douglas advises Maguire, "Books don't mean anything. Not to anybody. Not anymore." But Maguire responds that Douglas' last novel "meant something to me. It's one of the reasons I came to school here. To be in your class. To be taught by you." Making "Wonder Boys" was, for Hanson and Kloves and the cast, an act of faith that movies can mean something. Their reward will be the appreciation of lovers of words and images, who will get to see this movie where it belongs -- on the big screen -- and savor the wonder of it all.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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