It’s a sign of age: Mention 1985, and I will sometimes think you’re talking about last year. Maybe you, too, occasionally place your foot on a chronological step that isn’t there–in which case, you will have to grab for the banister when discussing such things as movie stars.
Despite what you may recall from the Reagan era, America’s stars of the white male variety need no longer bulge with steroid-enhanced muscle, glower with gun-toting authority or amuse with a repertoire of snarling one-liners. These traits may now qualify you to be governor of Minnesota; but today’s leading men (or at any rate those of February and March) are more likely to be thin and self-tortured, like Leonardo DiCaprio, Giovanni Ribisi and Tobey Maguire.
Leo’s new star vehicle, The Beach, has faltered at the box office, where it finds itself in the company of Snow Day and The Tigger Movie instead of Titanic; but that hardly spells the end for Leo’s kind of hero. He’s a guy who favors drawing pencils over guns, flirtations over brawls; and, though he’s quick to attract a Kate Winslet or a Virginie Ledoyen, he often defers his gratification with these ladies, as if they ought to toy with his buttons. The swagger he affected in Titanic, to the derision of only those critics who missed the point, did not negate his vulnerability but served to make it more poignant. After all, it was Leo, not Kate, who got to die young and beautiful.
Ribisi and Maguire don’t share Leo’s prettiness; but each, in his own way, is also a lost boy, who trembles, or perhaps thrashes, on the verge of adulthood. Ribisi (born in 1976, if publicists are to be trusted) is now on view in Boiler Room and is holding up well at the box office against Leo (said to have been born in 1974). Maguire (whose birth date is given as 1975) has meanwhile leapt to prominence, now that The Cider House Rules is in contention for the Oscars. His more recent release, Wonder Boys, is also a picture to consider.
I might describe Wonder Boys as a movie about the wrong character’s coming of age. Maguire plays the character who would have been right: James, a student at a university in Pittsburgh, whose instructor in fiction writing describes him as the “sole inhabitant of his own gloomy gulag.” That redundant “gloomy” might tip you off that the distinguished instructor isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. But we’ll get to him in a moment. For now, let’s concentrate on James, who is friendless, toneless, blank-faced and of undetermined sexual preference, at least when the movie starts.
Wonder Boys is fun–a lot of fun–so long as Maguire is hanging around, behaving as if he’d been reared in a video store that stocked only Psycho. How can you loosen up such a stiff? You introduce him to the kind of misbehavior that movie audiences smile upon, since it’s perpetrated by characters who are already so irresponsible as to be writers. Within the first three reels, James learns to drink, take pills, abuse people’s hospitality and build on an impressive talent for lying, thanks to the guidance of his teacher–a shambling novelist named Grady (Michael Douglas)–and of Grady’s editor, Terry, who is so much of a wastrel that he’s played by Robert Downey Jr.
Terry has the kind of job that requires a plausible front, so he shows up in Pittsburgh well barbered and dressed in Manhattan black. (The occasion: an annual series of readings hosted by the English department, at which Terry may scout for new manuscripts while pressing Grady to deliver his. It’s seven years late.) Despite his underlying desperation–if he doesn’t acquire a hot book soon, Terry’s out of a job–he allows nothing to disrupt his chic, except for his accessories: a Yankees cap and a newly acquired traveling companion who is about seven feet tall and in drag.
Grady, by contrast, seems like a collection of leftovers: old clothes, old typewriter, old reliance on cannabis. Douglas plays him with shaggy hair, a three-day stubble, low-riding eyeglasses and (for most of the picture) a limp, the latter being a memento of Grady’s mortal run-in with a blind dog. The dead dog is at first a considerable burden to him, as is James; Grady keeps both in his car, not knowing what to do with either. But by the sixth reel, the dog has turned into a remissive figure. It takes the place of the old James–literally–allowing a fresher, happier model to set forth into the world; and since James is now going to be America’s hot novelist, Grady is free to do something else with his life. He can grow up.
Despite the life-improving demands of the role, Douglas settles into it as comfortably as if he were Grady himself, greeting a fine Pittsburgh morning (freezing rain, turning to blizzard conditions) while snug in a decomposing bathrobe. Secure within both the get-up and the character, Douglas deals with his lines by throwing them all away–an excellent choice when playing off of Maguire, who edges up to his as if he’d found them lying across his path and wasn’t sure if they’d bite.
Of late, I’ve had few pleasures at the movies to compare with the sight of Maguire making his first forays into substance abuse. He lets his body move just a beat slower than his mind–except in those cases where it gets away and moves a beat faster, causing a mess–and the director, Curtis Hanson, unfailingly puts the joke across with just the right framing and editing. Wonder Boys is a first foray for Hanson, too: his debut as a comedy director, after a string of thrillers such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and L.A. Confidential. He proves himself to be a thorough pro–though not enough of an artist to have rescued the screenplay.
Written by Steve Kloves, based on a novel by Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys has a delightfully malicious beginning, an increasingly muddled second act and a conclusion of such moral uplift that it probably should not be shown to the characters themselves. If they are truly the people they seem to be when introduced, they will break into the projection booth and set fire to the last reel. The problem, as I hinted before, is that Wonder Boys gives its voiceover narration and point of view to Grady, though its heart is clearly with James. When James goes away–as he does periodically, so that Grady can struggle toward adult responsibility–the movie seems to go with him.
No such lapse occurs in Boiler Room. As the characters themselves say, nobody in the picture is as smart or interesting as its protagonist, Seth, the latest sensitive wacko to be embodied by Giovanni Ribisi.
Whereas Maguire’s intelligence usually takes the form of a watchful, judicious patience, which expresses itself in a few well-chosen words, Ribisi comes across as bright, jumpy and motormouthed. His voice is nasal, with spittle-drenched vowels that combine the whine of suburban mall rats and the drawl of gangsta rappers–a manner of speech that authenticates him as a young American of the moment, and that contrasts bizarrely with his face. With his pale flesh, high forehead and too-red lips, Ribisi looks like an actor from a twenties melodrama, or a Fassbinder period piece.
In Boiler Room he plays a Jewish college dropout from one of the wealthier sections of Queens, New York–a kid who wants to make money fast, as everyone is now said to do. After running his own casino on a quiet Queens street, he moves up to a higher form of gambling, taking a job as a cold-caller for a “stockbrokerage” called J.T. Marlin.
“On the phone, you can be anybody you want to be,” advises Seth’s immediate boss, Greg (Nicky Katt). Hence the advantage of making a movie about telephone pitchmen: They’re actors themselves. Train a camera on Ribisi, let him get his mouth going, and he’s already in character. Boiler Room conveys the adrenaline rush of actors (or stockbrokers) as they get the audience to buy whatever they’re selling–a scene, or a hundred shares of an IPO. And what if the IPO is as bogus as the name J.T. Marlin? That’s the plot, and theme, of Boiler Room.
Everything in the movie is a bad copy. The office, with its say-what? name, is located more than an hour from the New York Stock Exchange, just off the Long Island Expressway. The twenty-somethings who work there have learned to talk and dress by imitating Michael Douglas in Wall Street. (Granted, they judge it to be a fatally old-fashioned movie–but when they venture into Manhattan, they’re the ones who get mocked, as bridge-and-tunnel people.) As for the IPOs, they’re flimsy imitations of real stock offerings–something the customers aren’t supposed to find out till their last dollar has been lost.
As social criticism, this is both too much and not enough. Boiler Room suggests that the whole American economy is a shell game, yet presents the game as nothing more than a local aberration played by soon-to-be-indicted wannabes. In other words, the movie isn’t sure what it wants to do, except get a rise out of you. (Further evidence: the copious use of ethnic-insult dialogue to keep the audience awake.) This doesn’t mean Boiler Room is bad; it’s just half-baked.
Boiler Room is a first film, written and directed by Ben Younger, who must be of roughly the same age and background as his protagonist. Like the other lost wonder boys of February and March, he has been allowed to break into the movies because producers want to reach his age group: the demographic core of ticket buyers. Is this how the 18-to-25s want to see themselves? Given my shambling, time-tripping perspective, I can’t be sure. I merely know that a bunch of producers are betting that the answer is yes.
If they win, maybe the governor of Minnesota in 2015 will be a slim, quizzical fellow called Tobey.