****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes
screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon
directed by Curtis Hanson
by Walter Chaw While safely cocooned in the lushly-padded walls of academia, I had as my advisor a Grady Tripp--a man I respected as a professor and as a friend. We exchanged books often, we talked a great deal about the obscure minutiae of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's life, and we argued over whether William and Dorothy Wordsworth were engaged in a seedy incestual entanglement. (Yes, Brad, they were.) I even suspect that there was a tattered, coffee-stained manuscript tucked in the top drawer of his desk. If you've ever had a professor who shaped your opinions and a good portion of your intellectual life, and if you were additionally lucky enough to call him a friend as well as a mentor, then you're predisposed to liking Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys.
It's a cunning recreation of life in the ivory tower, from the insular bucolic dementia of a small college town to cocktail parties that include phrases like "semiotics" and "the translation was more literary than cinematic" in snatches of conversation. Hanson, as he demonstrated in L.A. Confidential, has a keen ear for dialogue and a keen mind for the literary adaptation. (Watch for "L.A. Confidential" author James Ellroy in a party scene early on in Wonder Boys; I presume that Michael Chabon, who wrote Wonder Boys' source novel, will cameo in Hanson's next film?) More importantly, Hanson understands the relationship between a troubled yet gifted young student and a troubled yet gifted professor. The entire film glows with the warmth of compassion for them.
It is so observant and kind, in fact, that I don't know if I've ever felt more instantly at home in a fiction. If I can anthropomorphize it, Wonder Boys is a rosy-cheeked grandmother smelling all of apple pie and gin. At one point in the film, a young student named James Leer (Tobey Maguire of The Ice Storm) says, "This place feels really...good."
Wonder Boys feels really good.
Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas, in a role that should have won him an Oscar this year) published a novel seven years before ("The Arsonist's Daughter") that won him both the PEN Faulkner award and a tenured English professorship at a small liberal arts college. On the winter's day that we meet him, his young wife leaves him, his mistress, the college chancellor (a marvelous Frances McDormand), tells him that she's pregnant with his child, and his editor (Terry Crabtree, played with a superlative amount of comic verve by Robert Downey Jr.) flies in from New York to find out what's happened to Grady's long-long-awaited follow-up to "The Arsonist's Daughter".
And then things get bad.
Wonder Boys is about characters and interactions; it's about one of our most talented screenwriters, Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Flesh and Bone), working at the absolute top of his profession; and it's about a cast so very sublime and dead solid perfect that wondering what will happen next doesn't drive the film so much as hoping that whatever it is takes its sweet time: We want these people to stay put. Even so, the plotting and the twists are delightful, paced and scored with a kind of winsome melancholy that is funny and affecting and, while a Murphy's collection of misadventure, laced with honest observation.
To tell too much of this film would be a crime--I leave you, instead, with brief thoughts. With the idea that Tobey Maguire is our best young actor and flawless as a brilliant young college student whose peculiar hobby is memorizing the dates and methods of celebrity suicides. With the notion that Robert Downey Jr.'s impending incarceration is a tragedy not only for the man himself, but also fans of great acting. With the realization that Downey's breezy command in nailing Crabtree's sadness and sexual ambiguity belies the difficulty of his task at making this well-meaning, Wilde-ian cad sympathetic and, by the end, a kind of hero.
Michael Douglas has not been better in another film. It is the performance of a career and the pronouncement, along with Traffic, that he may finally be moving comfortably into the older roles that his age demands. McDormand is again commanding and convincing in a supporting role, and Katie Holmes is able to betray a nascent intelligence given the appropriate role.
Wonder Boys is the best film of 2000, hands down. Had it been nominated for Best Picture, it would have won--and easily: Who'd have thought there'd be two John McCains in this past year's campaigns? Although neither as technically proficient as Traffic nor as magical as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it trembles at that critical equilibrium between the technically proficient and the magical. Besides, Wonder Boys is worth a look just for a scene outside of a gathering on a frigid Pennsylvania evening that Dante Spinotti, Michael Mann's favourite cinematographer, shoots with breathtaking crystalline delicacy. It evokes the very emotional fragility of the characters who inhabit it.
TRIPP: You cold, James?
JAMES: Oh, a little.
TRIPP: Why don't we go inside?
JAMES: It's colder in there.
Wonder Boys understands writers and readers, and though it's more appropriate for one of those two breeds of human animal, it's still a bit of an understatement to say that it comes highly recommended.
Paramount's DVD release of Wonder Boys is somewhat lacking in special features, at least to the extent that I missed a director commentary from Hanson and perhaps a cinematographer commentary from the under-valued Spinotti. There is a smoothly edited collection of (round-robin, junket-style) cast and director interviews totalling 12 minutes that's compelling to the extent that soft-serve commentary can be compelling. It's nice to hear Hanson, Douglas, McDormand, and Maguire extol the virtues of Kloves's exceptional script, but alas, there is a dearth of true insight into the film in what is largely a mutual admiration society.
More satisfying are vignettes featuring Hanson in which he provides a brief history of Wonder Boys' Pittsburgh locations and addresses the choices made in compiling the exceptional soundtrack to the film. Hanson is a learned man who appears to have given a degree of thought to ancillary choices that contradict the ease and lack of deliberation demonstrated by the film's execution.
Wonder Boys has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions and its 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic video transfer is lush and lovely. Spinotti's eye for a certain razored detail in his use of lighting and a muted color palette is recreated in an eye-catching and evocative presentation, noting in particular the above-mentioned exterior. The sound, rich and immersive Dolby 5.0, is well delineated and sharp. It's easy to distinguish the ambient sound of the opening university campus in late-term and later the quiet subtleties of an ocean wind blowing through a warehouse district. This is an aurally subdued film and the exceptionally meticulous sound transfer is a good match for its quietness. Also included on the DVD is a theatrical trailer (sadly, it is for the re-release of the film, replete with invasive blurbs), and a video for Bob Dylan's Oscar-winning tune "Things Have Changed."
A final note that this release of Wonder Boys has been edited for content: a line suggesting that Alan Ladd had killed himself has been removed to avoid litigation from the Ladd estate. The change is seamless and does not adversely affect the flow of the film. Originally published: March 25, 2001.