Michael Douglas’ A-Plus Lit Skit
Freshness and originality are such rare commodities at the movies that it’s a real thrill to encounter both in the extraordinarily winning Wonder Boys , a film that arrives without much advance hype but with a lot of potential for serious approval from critics and audiences alike. It’s about the midlife crisis of a fiftysomething college professor on a Pittsburgh campus whose personal and professional problems crash down on him during a literary weekend that is funny, heartbreaking and filled with skyrocket surprises. The halls of ivy have never been so dysfunctionally mesmerizing.
The impressive creative talents responsible for Wonder Boys comprise some of the brightest independent thinkers in the movie business. Curtis Hanson, who proved his skill as one of our finest directors with his dazzling noir thriller L.A. Confidential , now tackles a very different kind of material, while scriptwriter Steve Kloves is the man who wrote Racing With the Moon and both wrote and directed two of my favorite films, Flesh and Bone and the unforgettable Fabulous Baker Boys . I don’t know how they do it, because both men work outside the Hollywood system (Mr. Kloves does all of his writing in Texas). But they’ve filed the jargon, the pretentiousness, the cockeyed values and the daily lunacy of campus life today down as sharply as a manicure.
Heading a marvelous cast, Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, the kind of scruffy, disorganized but beloved eccentric usually played by Robin Williams–an English lit professor who was once a “wonder boy” with his first novel but has been suffering from writer’s block for seven years while attempting a second novel that may never be completed. Now his anxieties and self-doubts are exacerbated by another “wonder boy,” a morose student named James Leer (Tobey Maguire). James is a campus weirdo with a blazing talent for the kind of dark, depressing and offbeat stories nobody understands. He loves old movies and can recite the entire history of the suicides of Hollywood film stars, in alphabetical order. Professor Tripp sees in James a mirror reflection of himself. When James ends up sleeping on the professor’s couch, the temptation to read his novel is like that of an alcoholic locked in a closet with a sealed bottle of Stoli. Things get worse. Tripp has been having an affair with the college chancellor (Frances McDormand), who informs him she’s pregnant with his child. She’s married to the head of the English department (Richard Thomas), a stuffed-shirt who buys and collects expensive Marilyn Monroe memorabilia.
Things come to a riotous boil during a campus literary weekend called “Wordfest” when the professor’s leg is attacked by the English department chairman’s blind and mean-spirited dog, Poe. The dog is shot dead by the deadpan student James, everybody drives around in a stolen car with Poe in the trunk, along with the fur jacket Marilyn Monroe wore when she married Joe DiMaggio, and the professor’s house is invaded by his flamboyantly gay editor, Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), who arrives at “Wordfest” with a transvestite on his arm. Crabtree falls for James, the only copy of the professor’s unfinished 2,000-page novel blows into the Monongahela River, and the movie moves in a rhythm like a riff of guitar chords. You never know what’s going to happen next. You just sit there with your mouth open.
Because of the peculiar pace, some people have told me they find Wonder Boys boring. I disagree. It’s a movie that is powerfully character-driven; the tempo gives us a welcome chance to get to know their quirks intimately. Mr. Hanson is a professional observer. The same astonishing revelations that filled each scene in L.A. Confidential keep us on our toes, paying attention, waiting for more. Mr. Kloves specializes in the bizarre coincidences of everyday behavior, assuring us that the detritus of daily life is always material for offbeat literature. Mr. Douglas gives his most measured, self-assured and poignant performance in years. Mr. Downey has never looked better or acted with more comic skill. And young Mr. Maguire fulfills all the promise of The Cider House Rules in a more mature but equally endearing role that he plays with a bemused curiosity about life.
The combination of an unstable student and a faculty adviser who is none too stable himself makes for entertaining bedfellows. The result is a wonderful movie about eggheads in the rarefied groves of academe who are dysfunctional in the best sense of the word. The situations are lively, the dialogue is witty, the production values are juicy. What more can you ask from the movies? Loopy and lovable, I hope Wonder Boys hangs around for a very long time indeed.
Arnaz and Tormé, the Next Generation
Leggy, luscious Lucie Arnaz! Knocking them dead at Feinstein’s at the Regency, she’s a product of unbeatable genes–plenty of Cuban fire and a chip off the old Ball. Her cabaret appearances are rare, and this one is worth catching. She treats her entire act like a party in her own living room to which every member of the audience has been invited, and the result is an eclectic menu of songs, family anecdotes and lively discourse.
Her partner in syncopated crime is another second-generation Hollywood kid, Steve March Tormé, the son of you know who. He sings, he scats, he writes, and on his brand-new CD, Swingin’ at the Blue Moon Bar & Grille (available in the Regency lobby), you can hear the last recording Mel ever made. After four of his bouncy jazz solos, Lucie takes over, with a ravishing figure and a skintight dress slit up the front to display it in. Call it a bon voyage party to signal her departure for London, where she will star in the splashy new Cameron Mackintosh musical The Witches of Eastwick , or just call it a great night on the town. Lucie fills every requirement.
A talented singer, comic and actress, she infuses songs by Cy Coleman, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and her pianist Ron Abel with musical know-how, a thrilling range and a shimmering vibrato on vowels that hasn’t been heard since the early days of Edith Piaf. One particularly challenging show-stopper is a juxtaposition of Patsy Cline and George Shearing, fusing “Walkin’ After Midnight” with “Lullaby of Birdland.”
Whether she’s serenading the unsung backbones of American life on “Just a Housewife” or knocking you silly on the great Leonard Bernstein-Comden & Green aria “One Hundred Easy Ways,” from Wonderful Town , there are two things she knows from growing up around greatness–how to make show business work and how to use good taste while doing it. The place was star-studded on opening night, and the applause was genuine, hearty and well deserved.
A Final Word an Those CD’s
In the overwhelming response to my recent misadventure at Tower Records, I want to thank the hundreds of supporters who have phoned and e-mailed, and offer what I hope will be my final thoughts on the subject.
While I wish the mystery of three questionable CDs out of six had been solved on the premises without involving the cops, I admit I may have been unduly humorous at the expense of the Tower Records staff who, after all, were only following store procedures. Not all young people, whether they are security guards or junior stockbrokers, look like Beavis and Butt-head, and I meant no personal disapproval. Nor did I intend to impugn the Tower Records staff in general. Not long ago, a nice clerk who sold me a Tony Bennett CD even chased me to the entrance to return a pair of reading glasses I had left behind. For music enthusiasts, Tower Records still has a vast selection of hard-to-find products and a knowledgeable, helpful staff. Personally, I plan in the future to do all of my shopping on line, at Towerrecords.com.