January 11, 2002 11:05am EST
Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks) is sitting on the beach pondering the mysteries of life after losing his surfing buddy to a tsunami when he finds a copy of Marcus Skinner's novel Straitjacket buried in the sand. The book by a mythical Kerouac-type author who teaches at Stanford University profoundly influences Shaun who in turn decides he will become a writer. But Shaun's dreams of attending Stanford and studying under the guidance of his new mentor get squashed when a scatterbrained guidance counselor sends the wrong transcripts to the university. With the help of his peace-loving girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk) and his junkie brother Lance (Jack Black) the trio sets off to Stanford to convince school officials to reconsider his application before the deadline the following day. After a series of catastrophes Shaun becomes convinced that his dysfunctional family is conspiring to keep him in Orange County.
Colin Hanks (Get Over It not to mention Tom Hank's son) is the film's protagonist Shaun Brumder. He and his on-screen sweetheart played by Schuyler Fisk (Snow Day not to mention Sissy Spacek's daughter) bring quality to a good script suffering from shaky direction. The two interact quite naturally and make a pretty sweet couple. Jack Black (Shallow Hal) is hysterical and not just when he is standing around half-naked and dirty. Some of the funniest scenes are when Black's character Lance tries to be serious and stoned at the same time. Catherine O'Hara (Best in Show) plays Shaun's boozy mother without going over the top and John Lithgow (Third Rock from the Sun) is equally convincing as his rich father now married to someone half his age. There are several notable cameo appearances from actors including Lily Tomlin Ben Stiller Kevin Kline and Chevy Chase but they do not bring anything unique to their performances.
Orange County is directed by Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect) who more recently directed episodes of teen TV series Freaks and Geeks Undeclared and Grosse Pointe--and it shows. While the script is hilarious and the acting above par the pacing is a bit uneven. The film jumps from really gross shots of Black prancing around in his skanky underpants to sentimentalized family issues that are a little too real to be funny. Then we are subject to scenes of Shaun's wheelchair-bound stepfather rolling out onto the street and getting hit by a car being the target of falling objects or crying out in pain because no one remembers to give him his medication. When did the blatant neglect of invalids become funny? Unfortunately these elements did not come together very well. Of course Kasdan does not resist the temptation of subjecting us to a dreaded college frat party scene involving flaky teenage girls and pompous college boys that with the help of Monica Keena (Undeclared) almost felt like a sitcom.
Novelist and college teacher Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is a literary luminary on the strength of his smash first book but his follow-up is going nowhere after years of effort. Blocked emotionally as well as creatively this rumpled pot-smoking eccentric has driven away his wife and squandered another opportunity for love with his school's hubby-cheating chancellor (Frances McDormand). Then an exceptionally gifted young student (Tobey Maguire) triggers a series of misadventures that exceeds anything Grady ever dreamed up for his fiction.
In a performance that rivals his work in "Wall Street" as the best of his career Douglas grounds the film with effortless-looking naturalism and crusty charm. His knack for bringing sympathy to unsavory characters allows "Wonder Boys" to retain an edge while stealthily reaching for viewers' heartstrings. Playing a sensitive misfit coming of age for the umpteenth time is no stretch for Maguire ("The Cider House Rules") but he's touchingly effective nonetheless. The invaluable Robert Downey Jr. ("Chaplin") is delightful as Grady's stressed-out but loyal agent who hits town with a hulking transvestite on his arm.
Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") takes the fine screenplay adaptation by Steve Kloves ("The Fabulous Baker Boys") and wrings it for every drop of humor and pathos. Wise and full of heart in its sly way "Wonder Boys" is the kind of deeply satisfying piece filmmakers must have in mind when they set out to make dramas. The obvious disparity between the film's wide critical acclaim and dismal box-office performance earlier this year led Paramount Pictures to give it a rare re-release as the holiday Oscar season gets underway.