Joys of chaos

Mar 1, 2000 at 12:00 am

Usually he sits with one or two much younger men, students of his, wonder boys whose hearts are filled with the dread and mystery of the books they believe themselves destined to write. He has known a number of famous and admired authors in his time, and he likes to caution and amuse his young companions with case histories of the incurable disease that leads all good writers to suffer, inevitably, the quintessential fate of their characters.

This passage from Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995) captures the novel’s paradoxical tone. At once a loving evocation of the inverted logic that thrives in university English departments, it’s also an absurdist comedy about arrested development and the intoxicating lure of literary fame.

Using one of his own writing teachers as a model, Chabon (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) created Grady Tripp, a 50-something tenured professor who has fallen victim to his own desires. His previous novel marked Grady as a rising literary star, but the subsequent years found him sleepwalking through life (thanks in part to a long-term pot habit) and unable to complete the follow-up. It’s not that he’s had writer’s block. The problem is just the opposite: The novel has ballooned to more than 2,000 pages. As Grady (Michael Douglas) says in the movie version of Wonder Boys, "The ending kept getting further away."

"Grady Tripp is a writer who has had some success and had probably enjoyed the success," says director Curtis Hanson, "and now is suffering some of the potential negative results of success: He’s creatively paralyzed."

Both the novel and the film follow three pivotal days that force Grady to shake off his "professorial fog" and take charge of his future. In a series of calamities worthy of a screwball comedy, Grady’s wife leaves him, his married lover (the chancellor, whose husband is the head of the English department) announces she’s pregnant, his eager editor arrives anxious to get a look at his magnum opus, the university’s annual literary festival brings a host of self-important authors to town, and two of his most promising students take this opportunity to get more intimately involved with their favorite teacher.

"He has not made any choices in his life for a long time," says Douglas of the perpetually distracted Grady, "and the particular crises of this particular weekend force him to have to make a choice. We all know, either in our personal life or our work life, we go along for a long time before we have to do anything different."

What drew director Hanson in was not only the inherent humor of the story, but the fact that even though Grady’s situation is the most extreme, he’s not the only one going through changes.

"When I read Wonder Boys," he explains, "I fell for those characters because I identified with them; I identified with the struggles they were all having, to try and figure out what the hell they were doing with their lives. Each of these characters is looking, in their own way, for a sense of purpose, for love and human connection. But they made me laugh as they were struggling."

Hanson’s previous project was the stunning film noir L.A. Confidential, a superb adaptation of James Ellroy’s epic novel of institutionalized corruption. Although L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys couldn’t be more different in tone and style, they share an important quality. Both films have pared down the source novels to their essence, while still managing to remain immensely faithful to them.

This was achieved in large part by Hanson’s decision to shoot on location and make the characters’ relationship to a specific place a crucial aspect of the film. As Wonder Boys moves from the classical columns of Carnegie Mellon University and the faded gentility of surrounding neighborhoods to the majestic industrial architecture along Pittsburgh’s three rivers, Hanson visually enhances the story’s themes of a promising past juxtaposed with an uncertain future.

"I feel that environment is very important in a movie," Hanson says, "and I love going into another world, immersing myself in that and using it as part of the storytelling process. That’s both the academic world of the campus and in another way it’s the whole world of Pittsburgh, which is why I wanted to shoot the whole picture on location, even though it wasn’t necessary."

Wonder Boys is filmed in widescreen, and Hanson has again collaborated with L.A. Confidential cinematographer Dante Spinotti, but he decided early on that he didn’t want to impose a similar formalist visual style on a story that depends on the element of surprise.

"I described a feel for the movie," he explains, "which is ‘loose.’ In a sense, I wanted the movie to feel as though we didn’t know where these characters were going to take us, and wherever they were going to take us, we were ready to go. That, in other words, it would not feel constructed.

"That’s part of what captivated me about this script," continues Hanson, "is this sort of (Alice in Wonderland) nonsensical journey that Grady Tripp goes on, where he doesn’t even know where he’s going or why. It sounds naturalistic, and people say, ‘Oh, that must be easy,’ but it’s a difficult thing to achieve."