Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Wonder Boys


Curtis Hanson seems to be one of the better directors I have not really taken note of. (It’s too late now. He died of some horrible strain of dementia in late 2016) His credits include small but heartfelt films like The Big Year, which we loved, and big ones, like L.A. Confidential, which in addition to being an outstanding noir thriller, holds a special place in our hearts. That’s because the opening scene was filmed at the house next door to our apartment building in Hollywood! How about that! If you take a look at the film, you will see Danny DeVito come out of some shrubs where he has been hiding. At the end of the street is a movie theater whose marquee proclaims When Worlds Collide. It’s a phony! That building is empty. The film company had the false marquee built there. If the camera had panned just a bit to the left you could have seen our apartment.

Okay, back to the movie. Michael Chabon is one of the best authors working today. He won the Hugo and Nebula awards for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an alternate reality story where Jews were resettled in Alaska after the war, not Palestine. And their lease is running out. The Coen Brothers were attached to the film project a few years ago, but that seems to have fallen apart. Too bad. It would have been a great film for them.

His terrific novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is about two cousins, a writer and artist for comic books. Aside from him being a great writer, I love him for his advocacy of genre fiction. Here is a man who is accepted by the literary “establishment,” and yet writes readable stories. Or he used to be accepted and praised, though a lot of critics and writers in the New York Cabal of Literary Snoots have reassessed him since he started saying that trash like mysteries and science fiction could be as good as, or even better than, the actual trash turned out by the literary snoots. I mean, if he likes, and even likes to write, garbage like that, how good could be be? Oh, don’t get me started.

Wonder Boys was his second novel. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was his first, the obligatory “coming of age” story. This one is the obligatory “writer who can’t write” story. I don’t really mean that to be condescending, but it is a bit of a mystery to me why so many writers think other people would be interested in the trials and tribulations of a blocked writer. But they do, because the list of writers who have penned such novels is a long one.

And some of them are quite good. I have not read the book, but this adaptation by Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys, and all the Harry Potter scripts!) makes a fine story, well-acted by Michael Douglas, Toby Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey, Jr., and Katie Holmes. There is really nothing at all original in the story of a college professor who wrote a good book seven years ago but can’t finish his current project … and again, I don’t mean that as a put-down. If we only made movies and wrote books with original ideas, we would be lucky to get one every year. Two at the most. It’s all in how you tell it. Here’s a nice one, for instance. Douglas rolls a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter (you remember typewriters, don’t you? Mechanical devices that put actual ink on actual paper?) and types the page number: 261. A pause, and then he adds a number: 2611. To put the icing on the joke, that is 2,611 pages single-spaced! Katie Holmes, who later tries to read some of it, wonders if he really needs the genealogies of every person and dog in the book. Bob Dylan wrote a song for this movie, and it won an Oscar.