I just read about the death of writer/director Curtis Hanson today at the age of 71. Hanson's gifts with actors carried him from guilty B-pleasures like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992) (where Annabella Sciorra and Rebecca De Mornay face off like '50s-era vipers) to 8 Mile (2003) (whose texture and grace frame Eminem with more sympathy than he deserves, and find a empathetic heart at the center of his rage and misogyny). In between those films, he co-adapted (with Brian Hegeland) and directed James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential (1997), an ensemble prestige picture whose effortless genre play allows Hanson to explore post-war economics, gender roles, and McCarthyism without ever making the proceedings feel like white elephant awards bait (maybe that's why it received so many awards).
And then there's his adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (2000), as deft and funny an exploration of academia, creativity, and writer's block (and all the passive-aggressive behavior those modes often entail), as has been seen in American films in the last 30 years (it feels like the spiritual sequel to Breaking Away, where everyone is at once foolish and lovable). Michael Douglas is the star, and he's great, but everyone is great, from Frances McDormand's long-suffering chancellor/mistress, to Tobey Maguire's calculatedly nihilistic creative writing major, to Katie Holmes' wise undergraduate, to Robert Downey, Jr.'s sly editor (it's one of Downey's best performances, which is really saying something). As Jean Renoir's Octave famously said, "The terrible thing is that everyone has their reasons," and Wonder Boys is full of tiny grace notes that illuminate both parts of that statement, from Rip Torn's bullshit artist at a campus cocktail party who grins unctuously and tells Douglas' character that "I put your novel on my syllabus every semester"; to Downey's shamelessness at using his editorial position to score with young writers; to Katie Holmes' observation that "You always tell us writers make choices, and it feels like you...didn't"; to the way Douglas chases the pages of his manuscript as they're thrown-- in both doom and a kind of sad liberation-- into a gray Pittsburgh sky. Wonder Boys is the kind of film everyone moans they don't make anymore, and then no one goes to see (despite strong reviews, it died at the box office, and found cult life on video). But it's Hanson's best film, the place where his generous eye and love of performance found its best resting place. R.I.P.