Wonder Boys is the kind of movie that makes a little blip on the timeline of your life without actually changing its course. As interesting or well told or charming as it may be, it’s safe and pat and unchallenging. You can leave the theater in the same emotional state as when you went in.
Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, and Robert Downey, Jr., lead a literary ensemble through Michael Chabon’s story. Douglas plays Professor Tripp, who teaches English at a university in Pittsburgh. James (Maguire), one of his best creative writing students, is always moody and depressed. Downey plays Terry, Tripp’s editor who has come to town ostensibly for the university’s “Wordfest” weekend, but also to check on Tripp’s long-overdue latest book.
The detailed, twisty story in Wonder Boys takes place over a single, eventful weekend. A dozen little developments add to the comic chaos. James shoots the dog of Tripp’s mistress and steals her husband’s Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. Terry’s transvestite girlfriend decides to abandon a tuba in Tripp’s trunk. A strange man jumps out in traffic claiming that Tripp has stolen his car. Tripp’s pretty young boarder gets a crush on him and starts reading his unfinished novel.
In a small way, Wonder Boys is reminiscent of Magnolia. Both deal with complex plots and big casts of characters. Both involve many conflicts coming to a head, all within a short time span. But where Magnolia was grand and almost melodramatic, Wonder Boys is small and almost mundane.
Like Magnolia, the ensemble acting in Wonder Boys is very good. Douglas is clearly the central figure, but none of the other actors seemed intimidated or too deferential. All the characters had their own, clear motives; they didn’t solely exist as foils for Douglas’ Tripp. The characters were lively and well-rounded, and the actors looked like they were having fun.
Wonder Boys has many good qualities, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a tempest in a teapot. The goings-on at an English department in Pittsburgh seemed a world away. The department was so small and close-knit that I never felt like I could know these people; I’d never be allowed into their clique. Their little problems, amusing as they were, held no meaning or relevance. Had I never met these people, never known what happened to their lives on this particular weekend, at that particular university, I never would have noticed; I never would have cared.
It may not be completely fair to pan Wonder Boys for not being grander, more melodramatic, more meaningful. After all, I try to enjoy every film on its own terms. This one set modest goals and achieved them very well.
On the other hand, a modest film is not the type of movie I’m likely to see more than once, or recommend very highly, regardless of how well it handled itself.