One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: School’s out for summer. Celebrate the end of a semester (or just the release of Neighbors 2) with these unconventional campus comedies.
Wonder Boys is an unusually shaggy prestige picture. It’s outfitted top to bottom with esteemed, awards-ready talent, yet it has a sense of absurdity and delicacy. The film is set in an unnamed Pittsburgh university during a long weekend’s festival for visiting writers, so it’s certainly a campus comedy, with lots of wandering, tangential asides… only it’s pitched at eggheads or eggheads in training, rather than the rowdy frat boys or jocks that usually figure in American cinema’s campus escapades. This is the kind of campus movie in which someone is less likely to chug a beer than read an unpublished novel while melancholically smoking a joint in a beat-up car against picturesque snowfall.
The film wears its prestige both heavily and lightly. Curtis Hanson’s direction and Dante Spinotti’s cinematography abound in fastidious craftsmanship, fashioning a winter world that suggests what young aspiring writers might envision the university experience to be, with anciently textured buildings, grand halls, and brilliant, fashionably unkempt writers who resemble A-list celebrities. This carefulness is contrasted with a slightly less polished approach to pacing, yielding scenes that play out long enough for the actors to develop playful rapport. Wonder Boys is a film that’s unusually loyal to its source material, the Michael Chabon novel of the same name; it pares away some of the book’s purposeful arbitrariness while preserving its appealing willingness to follow characters wherever they might want to go, whether it’s to visit an ex-wife, or raid a book editor’s drug stash, or hide a dead dog in a huge trunk.
Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves capture that feeling of a weekend as seen by someone in retrospection, after they’ve cast it in nostalgia and personal myth-making. The writers’ weekend is significant for the characters but probably more so in memory, once it’s blended in their minds with the self-actualizing tropes of the fiction they obsessively read. This feeling is appropriate, as we see events unfold through the eyes of Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), a potentially washed-up great writer who’s fashioning the story we’re watching into a new book, after a prior attempt at a masterpiece literally blows away in the wind. The film, like Chabon’s book, is about memory and creation and the fact that these concepts are nearly one and the same. The narrative’s platitudes are undercut by a suggestion of elusiveness, of time slipping away before we’ve had the opportunity to properly qualify it. That’s the sort of thing writers think about: qualification as mastery of possession.
Availability: Wonder Boys is available from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.