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.