I realize that the film made $187 million at the box office and it has
a legion of fans but I am not the film’s only detractor. I recently
read the comment index for the film at the Internet Movie Database and
I find that I am not alone.
William’s world has been established by the values set in place by Elaine (Frances McDormand), his mother who forbids Rock and Roll which she sees as a conduit of drugs and displaced values. But she’s not a wicked witch. She’s an intelligent woman who dotes over her children while trying to keep them from falling between the cracks that are forming in their generation. When William is 11, his older sister, Anita (Zooey Dashenel) constantly fights with her mother and leaves home to become a stewardess. She leaves William with a stack of records that she thinks will help shape his future.
At 15, William finds a mentor in writer Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour
Hoffman) who informs him that he has arrived at the end of true Rock and Roll and that commercialism is about to put a stranglehold on the industry.
“Rock and roll is dead; you got here just in time for the death
rattle. Still, the kid persists and Bangs, liking his unflappable spirit (and
the fact that he doesn’t do drugs) decides that he may yet have
what it takes to be a great writer.
Two women emerge as the guiding force in William's life, one is his mother, whom he constantly calls to ensure that he isn’t doing drugs. The other is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), one of those constant companions that travels with the band but insists that she is not a groupie. She calls herself a "Band Aid", a sort of muse who gives a lift of inspiration to the band.. She’s naïve but not stupid, a hippie one decade too late. She has values but you can see that she may be too spiritual for her own good.
He is invited to go on the road with Stillwater and promises his mother that he will only be gone a few days. But as the tour goes on, he endears himself to Stillwater who find that he isn’t the kind of smug, hateful journalist that they believe is choking the life out of rock music. It is on the road that William begins to see what keeps the band together and the kind of petty squabbles that can break them apart. One particularly brilliant scene involves and argument over a T-Shirt in which Russell is in full focus while the other guys stand behind him out of focus. This rubs Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), the lead singer the wrong way. “I can tell by your face that you want to get into this”, says Russell. Says Jeff, “How can you tell, I’m just one of the out of focus guys.”
William finds himself emotionally attached to Penny and to Russell. There is a hint that she may have been his girlfriend at one time but the movie avoids a phony explanation and leaves it at a suggestion. William cares about these two so much that it pains him to see either of them hurt, especially when Russell sells Penny in a poker game to another band for $50 and a case of beer. The way Kate Hudson handles that revelation is a case of very skilled acting, she acts with her face so that we can read every emotion.
The tension mounts on William when he gets a phone call from Rolling Stone who ask him to write an article on Stillwater. They have no idea that he is only 15 but they give him a deadline to get an interview with Russell. The problem? Russell doesn't do interviews and the second half of the movie hinges Williams dreams on doing just that. This is interesting because it's later revealed the Rolling Stone becomes the intersecting dream of both William and the band, he wants to write for it and they want to be in it. It's at that moment that we realize that he may yet find his dream.
Every time I revisit Almost Famous, I am struck by the details and about the sights and sounds of the era. This is not a biography of a band but of a time when the words Rock Music had a certain aura and the time just before the music industry tried to make that aura marketable. What is irresistible about Almost Famous is the generosity of Cameron Crowe as a director. His characters are so interesting that he trusts that the audience will follow their journey. The puts them in the perfect setting, a recreation of a time when 70's rock music caught somewhere between the death of music with a social conscious and the era when rock became pure capitalism.
The first year of the new millennium was a good year for actors in leading roles. It was a good year for actors in all categories but many were not nominated. I would have been happy to see nominations for John Cusack in High Fidelity; Ralph Feinnes in Sunshine; Will Smith as a mysterious golf caddy in Robert Redford's The Legend of Bagger Vance; Billy Crudup as the rock god in Almost Famous; Christian Bale as a fastidious axe murderer in American Psycho; Gary Oldman as the Ken Starr-like Senator in The Contender. The list goes on and on and none were nominated. But the biggest crime was overlooking Michael Douglas for his single best performance as a college professor who gets a wake-up call on his own arrested development in Curtis Hansen's Wonder Boys.
Grady's direction in life is more or less aimless, his personal problems are only dealt with when they pop up into his field of vision. A big literary festival is taking place on the campus run by Walter Gaskell (Richard Thomas), head of the English Department and Grady’s supervisor. Grady doesn’t much like Walter and steers clear of him especially in light of the fact that he is sleeping with Sara, Walter’s wife.
That’s not his only problem. Over the course of several days, his problems seem to converge into a sort of Murphy's Law traffic jam. His wife Emily (whom we never see) has just left him. One of his students, James (Tobey Maguire) is a depressed loner who may be suicidal. Another of his students (Katie Holmes) is living in a room in his house, is madly in love with him, but hasn’t yet turned to sleeping his bed. His agent (Robert Downey Jr.) is buzzing around like a blowfly itching to take a look at that nearly decade old manuscript. Oh yeah . . . and Sara is pregnant.
What we see in Grady is a man who once had a happy bend on life. In his youth he was probably announced as the next big thing, but is now under threat of becoming a one-hit wonder. He doesn't seem to look too deeply into life, just living for the day. The problem is that he never imagines having to deal with the day he just left behind. Then, somehow, the cosmic forces fall on him and he ends up in a whirl-wind of problems involving his girlfriend, his student, his editor, his boss, his boss's dog, his car, his job, his marriage and a violent confrontation with a James Brown look-alike that he mistakenly calls Vernon.
All of these elements converge upon Grady in the course of one weekend and what is amazing is the way he is able to juggle all of these oddities without caving under the pressure. It would be easy to play the character as coming unglued but Douglas is too smart for that, he sees Grady as gentle, befuddled and low-key. That plays to the nature of the character, a college professor still wandering in a haze of his long-forgotten glory days. Now north of 50 he finds that responsibility not such a foreign concept after all.
If there is a consistency in the characters that Michael Douglas plays it is that he most often plays men who find out too late that they are in over their heads. We see that in Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Romancing the Stone, Disclosure and others. Wonder Boys takes that same idea and turns it loose on a screwball comedy. He takes a role that could have contained a lot of mugging and over-acting and keeps it just this side of sanity. While all the insanity is happening around Grady, he keeps himself in check. We first see him as a laid-back guy, proud of his achievement who that he is stuck in a spiral of problems that he has built for himself. The journey of Wonder Boys is how he is able to cope with that chaos and who he will be when he will choose to be when he reaches the other side. What Grady does in life may not echo in eternity, but at least he is grown up enough to make better choices.
This is a powerful subject but I saw the same material done much better with essentially the same story a few years earlier in A Civil Action and with Meryl Streep in Silkwood. The other problem is that I never felt like I was looking at Erin Brockovich, I was always seeing Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich. I know that the real Brockovich is known for short skirts and a plunging neckline, but Roberts looks uncomfortable in some scenes and that may be from the costume designer trying to squeeze Roberts into ill-fitting clothes that are more of a distraction than a distinction. I don’t think this is her best work. I think that the academy overlooked better work in My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill and Something to Talk About and I still think her best performances are yet to come. For my taste, there just wasn’t anything new here.
I had a difficult time deciding on my Best Actress for 2000. I was stuck between Ellen Burstyn's work as a diet pill addict in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream and Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart a 19th century socialite who has her reputation destroyed by spite and jealousy in Terence Davies' adaptation of The House of Mirth. Both play women destroyed by the trappings of their surroundings, both are heartbreaking both are brilliant. But I go with Burstyn because her Sara Goldfarb travels further into her personal Hell and goes there on her own.
She has hallucinations. She thinks her refrigerator is attacking her. She sees things in speed up and she waits for a call from the television show that never comes. In one cold-hearted moment she goes to see her doctor, complains about the visions, about the refrigerator and her doctor - who never even looks at her - simply prescribes more pills and then quickly leaves the room. Sara begins to panic. She leaves her house, goes to the television station, thin, pale, hair unkempt and begins rattling “I’m Sara Goldfarb, I’m gonna be on television.” She is finally put into shock therapy.
What separates Burstyn from other actors who have portrayed drug addicts is that we see the progression of her illness. We understand why she is hooked on diet pills and we know that it isn't based on a simple weakness of the flesh. Most movies show drug addicts in the midst of their addiction and portray it as some kind of sexy-ugly process. Sara gets hooked on pills because of her need to lose weight because she thinks that someone has finally acknowledged her existence. This lonely old lady has finally had a small ray of sunshine in her life even if it is only a paper moon.
In one heartbreaking moment, Sara explains to Harry her need to lose
weight and to get on the show, "I'm somebody now, Harry. Everybody
likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me and they'll all like me.
I'll tell them about you, and your father, how good he was to us. Remember?
It's a reason to get up in the morning. It's a reason to lose weight,
to fit in the red dress. It's a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all
right. What have I got Harry, hm? Why should I even make the bed, or wash
the dishes? I do them, but why should I? I'm alone. Your father's gone,
you're gone. I got no one to care for. What have I got, Harry? I'm lonely.
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