TWO STARS - Shallow
The importance of making the right choices is an obvious prerequisite for achieving excellence in the journey of life. But in Curtis Hanson’s most recent film, “Wonder Boys,” the problem Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) has is not so much making the wrong choices as it is deliberately avoiding making any choices at all. Rather than facing life as a responsible person choosing his own path, Tripp seems to be willing to be taken wherever the circumstances of his life happen to lead him.
Though this film is full of the tense humor such avoidance creates, the truth is that we can’t avoid making the wrong choices by making no choices. “Wonder Boys” creates a world in which right and wrong are no longer even considered and, instead, life is simply a series of loosely related experiences which flow one into another with little regard for consequences or other people.
As his name implies, Tripp is on this capricious journey using the artificial serenity of marijuana.
Having succeeded in writing an award-winning, best-selling novel, Tripp has spent the last 7 years trying to prove he is not a “one-book-wonder.” However, under the influence of marijuana, he has lost his capacity to choose both the limits and the direction his second novel should take. The result is an unending story which is over 2,000 pages long without even nearing completion.
The major action of the film focuses on a two or three day period in which Tripp’s editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), has come to the university where Tripp teaches to attend a conference called “Wordfest.”
Ostensibly attending to connect with new authors, we are informed that Crabtree is coming in a last-ditch effort to save his own career as an editor by getting Tripp to finish his second book and let him publish it.
Making sure that we not confuse this action as being one of concern for Tripp himself, the film presents Crabtree as a shallow, immoral man when he gets off the plane having picked up an obvious transvestite as a “trophy.” Antonia Sloviak or Tony (Michael Cavaias) later explains that Crabtree was “only into collecting weird tricks” as he discarded him when he found a more interesting partner.
This is the first moral theme of the film: “Wonder boys” who can write great works of literature are often victims of people like Crabtree who use people for their own amusement and advancement.
But Crabtree and Tripp aren’t the only users within the film.
The third leading character is a creative genius named James Leer (Toby Maguire). Leer is a student of Tripp’s and a seriously disturbed person whose personal life is as much a work of fiction as is his writing.
With a flair for the dramatic that catches both the heart and attention of his professor, Leer soon finds himself not only in the home and care of Tripp but in the arms of Crabtree. This repulsive manipulation is the third moral statement and sets the stage for the final act and an unsatisfying attempt to redeem the film.
Having been left by his third wife, Tripp is told that his mistress, the chancellor of the university, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) is pregnant. This complication to their illicit affair is now a choice which must be faced.
But Tripp doesn’t make choices. Running from life and medicating his soul with the ever-pleasing weed, Tripp seems to be tripping into a pile of problems that are going to cost him not only his wife, his career and his tenured position at the university, but his child as well.
It is then, at the moment of his impending loss of everything, that Tripp makes his first choice. He decides to call Sara’s husband and announce his love for her. He next decides to give up his marijuana. He then decides to write a new novel and make the choices necessary to limit its content.
Though in the end, the film suggests that Tripp and Sara and their child will live happily ever after, the emptiness of such a promise is unconvincing. No longer addicted to drugs or committing adultery or having an abortion are steps toward a moral life, but there is no real change in either the underlying morality or spirituality of their lives.
The “Wonder Boys” are not wonderful and certainly not a model for how a person achieves a meaningful life. The complete absence of any positive spiritual influence in anyone’s life is an element that was totally neglected, even though our spiritual beliefs and values are the foundations upon which we make good choices. It would require a miracle to transform these surreal characters into “Wonder Men.”