Film I failed A-Level English. It took two years, round the clock study and a deep-seated understanding of the books at hand not to succeed in the endeavour. I wasn’t disappointed at the time because I was still going to University on my B in Fine Art and D in General Studies. It wasn’t until three years after college as I sat watching a production of Hamlet and understanding every word of it I decided I should have done better. I reconciled that I couldn’t have done better at the time and I’ve moved on. Watching ‘Wonder Boys’, the memories of the study experience came flooding back to me.

Part of the learning journey was one-on-one study periods with the head of the English department. His ground floor office was much as you would expect – a dusty edifice full of old books and even older carpeting. The teacher’s desk was in the bay window, and as I entered each fortnight, there he would be, sitting with his side too me, stuffing tobacco into his pipe.

He didn’t actually seem to teach anything which we hadn’t covered in class. On reflection, I think it was his chance to see how much of what he had been saying had crept into my teenage mind. During each session I would find myself with one obsession. Trying to imagine what his life was like outside school.

I couldn’t ask him, this fifty-something man, with squinty glasses and a receding hairline. I decided eventually he had a house in Cheshire from which he would drive every morning listening to Radio Two. He had two grown up kids, one a doctor, the other following in her father’s footsteps as a teacher. He’d been at this school since graduating from college, and had lived an unremarkable yet useful life, king of his own castle, looked up to by all around.

I think I secretly hoped though, that his life was something like Grady Tripp, Michael Douglas character in ‘Wonder Boys’ -- someone who had lived life enough to understand the literature from what he’d experienced not from what he had learnt. That when I wasn’t falling asleep in that tobacco smoke filled office; he would be tapping away on an old typewriter on an unending novel which would be considered a classic if he ever finished it. That when he described why John Donne had written ‘On His Mistress’ it would because of some infidelity of his own or an inability to commit. That in those moments when he would go into detail about Angelo’s attitude in ‘Measure for Measure’ he was teaching me some little nugget about his life. In effect that I was the James Leer (Tobey Maguire) of this little fantasy.

He wasn’t. I certainly wasn’t. I failed English Literature (which probably had more to with my dozing than his teaching skills…but I digress).

I do wonder what that teacher would have made of ‘Wonder Boys’. I suppose I can imagine him scoffing away, unable to comprehend the implausibility of this man holding down a tutoring position whilst trying to be a novelist. I can see him giving chapter and verse on it in class, before rolling his eyes and commenting, yet again, that Shakespeare was the only true dramatist. That may be true, but it’s good now and then to dip into the ones who are at least trying.

There is a certain spiritual similarity between this film and ‘Good Will Hunting’. Both are filmed with the same slightly glary quality – but ‘Wonder Boys’ is a much more literate film with an awareness of history which only comes from writers and directors of experience. I haven’t read Michael Chabon’s novel, so I can’t say how closely it follows the printed page; but the adaptation by Steven Kloves (the director of ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’) is entirely dialogue driven, allowing us the chance to learn about the characters – there is exposition, but also plenty left unsaid, moments were implication fills in for truth.

It’s entirely shocking that this is directed by Curtis Hanson. In a decade, he’s moved from the histrionics of ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradles’, through ‘The River Wild’ and the instantly classic ‘LA Confidential’. Those were all larger films, full of bangs and whistles. It could have been a similar story here – the unfolding plotline could equally have been played as a farce in the mould of Steven Moffat (‘Coupling’, ‘Joking Apart’). But this has proportion and some experimentation. Rather like some low budget indie film, it doesn’t care if we lose track of a few characters and what they’re doing for a while – we’ll catch up them later. What you’re seeing is much more interesting. It’s a step sideways for Hanson, but a valid one. Less plot perhaps – more character.

Douglas’ performance here is as good as it’s ever been. He’s a slightly maligned actor because more often than not he appears in so called ‘Hollywood’-style films like ‘Disclosure’. But even there he must have been working some magic to make us care for him. As Tripp (which is a real ‘Steve Buscemi’ of a loser role), he excels in creating a history behind his eyes, and warmth in his cheeks. He’s certainly the best actor in show here. Downey Jr does the kind of shtick he’s been perfecting since ‘The Pick-up Artist’, and proving what a tragedy his life has been all in all. Tobey Maguire is in his understated acting mode, making that smile of his, when it finally arrives even more appealing. Francis McDormand proves once again that the world will eventually be inherited by character actresses, making you love her as soon as she appears on screen. And Joey Potter – sorry – Kate Holmes is as good as ever, talking out of the side of her mouth and cocking her head that way. It’s actually refreshing to see her in a role where she isn’t trying to completely lose her TV origins.

So this is another of those films I’ll watching over and over. When it appears on television it’ll be like bumping into an old friend. It isn’t a surprise that it wasn’t a success on its first release in America – it’s the kind of film which makes you warm and fuzzy looking back at a week later. That release wasn’t helped, of course, by a staggeringly inept poster of Michael Douglas looking like a wino. The second poster was much fairer, playing up the ensemble nature of the cast. It might not been seen as a classic now, but I’m sure in ten years it will be appearing in top one hundred lists. It has word of mouth in its favour. Which is why I’m recommending it to you now. If you’re looking for something life affirming in the ‘Shawshank’ or ‘Field of Dreams’ mode, but new to the eye. This is it.

[Another Tuesday night dig about the archives. I don't think most of you have read it so here it is. I still stand by every word. I'm in the process of working on some 'Big Breakfast' style pre-records for over the festive period, and watching 'Tomorrow La Scala!' so I hope you'll not mind 'another chance to read ...']

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