I love the lived-in beauty, the quiet tranquility, and the super stony vibe of Curtis Hanson’s terrific drama Wonder Boys, which features one of the all-time best performances from Michael Douglas as a pot-smoking college professor/writer’s blocked novelist whose younger wife has just left him. He’s having an affair with the Dean’s wife (the lovely and pointedly funny Frances McDormand), there’s a lustful young student who has him in her sights (eager and adorable Katie Holmes), he’s got a hounding, unfocused, rapscallion of an agent to contend with (witty and charming Robert Downey Jr.), and the closeted writing prodigy who is looking for a mentor needs to be broken out of his tightly wound shell and comes looking for help (Tobey Maguire, rarely better). Based on Michael Chabon’s novel, Steven Kloves’ generous, warmhearted, and deeply funny screenplay is filled with fabulous literary allusions, and perfectly balanced all of these fantastic characters, giving them all a chance to shine, while providing Douglas with the opportunity to be vulnerable and scruffy and sloppy and affable — an all-around good guy — a side to him as an actor we rarely get a chance to see, because let’s be honest – he’s a terrific cinematic prick!
Hot off the critical and commercial success of L.A. Confidential, Hanson probably had the pick of the litter when it came to a follow up project, so it speaks volumes to his humanistic character and as a sensible filmmaker and honest storyteller that he went with something as low-key and unassuming as Wonder Boys. This film, released in 2000, is one that’s constantly filled with surprises, and while a critical favorite, it died a terrible and tragic death at the box office. I’d like to think that over time people have caught on to this film’s odd, specific, and brazenly marijuana-infused charms, as it’s one of those small gems that gives off that contact high feeling while you watch it. Cannabis is a character in this film, not something that’s to be giggled over by immature dopers with nothing interesting to say. The linkage of pot to the process of writing – and how it can both help and place a burden upon an artist – is explored to great, subtle degree in Wonder Boys. The film also features an absolutely incredible soundtrack, with Bob Dylan’s fantastic and melancholy tune “Things Have Changed” rightfully taking home the Oscar for Best Song. Everything about this movie makes me smile, and I really, really hope that it gets the Blu-ray treatment that it deserves, because Dante Spinotti’s beautifully hazy cinematography deserves better.