Wonder Boys is one of those movies in which more twists and turns disrupt the life of the hero in one weekend than would bother most of us our whole lives. Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is an aging one-novel wunderkind at a small Pittsburgh college who’s laboring on his seven-years-in-the-making, 2000-plus page second opus with no end in sight. The morning of the college’s literary lollapalooza, WordFest, Grady’s wife leaves him; that evening, his mistress (Frances McDormand) announces she’s pregnant (she’s also the chancellor of the school, as…
Wonder Boys is one of those movies in which more twists and turns disrupt the life of the hero in one weekend than would bother most of us our whole lives. Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is an aging one-novel wunderkind at a small Pittsburgh college who’s laboring on his seven-years-in-the-making, 2000-plus page second opus with no end in sight. The morning of the college’s literary lollapalooza, WordFest, Grady’s wife leaves him; that evening, his mistress (Frances McDormand) announces she’s pregnant (she’s also the chancellor of the school, as well as the wife of Grady’s boss). Grady’s voracious editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is also in town, transvestite date in tow, determined to read the highly anticipated new book; there’s also the nubile student (Katie Holmes), who seems more than willing to ease Grady’s pain. And then there’s James Leer (Tobey Maguire), the mordant and brilliant writing student who’s the catalyst for Grady’s lost weekend, which involves a soon-to-be-dead blind dog, a stolen car, and the jacket that Marilyn Monroe wore when she wed Joe DiMaggio.
Had enough flights of fancy? It’s only the beginning, and in the hands of director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) and screenwriter Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys), Wonder Boys will have you begging for more. Adroitly adapting Michael Chabon’s novel and distilling it to its droll, melancholy essence, Kloves and Hanson have fashioned a briskly unsentimental and darkly funny tale; these characters may be down on their luck, but they sure don’t feel sorry for themselves. Douglas, by turns dryly sarcastic and sincerely heartfelt, single-handedly makes up for years of alpha-male posturing as the passive pothead Tripp, and whoever thought of pairing him with the resilient McDormand is brilliant—they convey the complexities and history of their relationship in a single glance or movement. And under Hanson’s guidance, the rest of the cast is truly exceptional, with Maguire in a breakthrough performance and Downey at his manic best. The ending of Wonder Boys may feel a little too pat, but after everything these characters have been through, a happy ending seems a just reward. —Mark Englehart
Barnes and Noble
Michael Douglas hits a career high with his quietly hilarious star turn in Wonder Boys, a wry, understated comedy puckishly directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential). Douglas plays a once-promising middle-aged novelist, now hopelessly blocked and teaching at a small northeastern college while trying to jump-start both his personal and professional lives. The solution to his problems—in both arenas—just might be eccentric but talented student Tobey Maguire, whose promising work Douglas is tempted to appropriate and represent as his own. The supporting players include Robert Downey Jr. as Douglas’s predatory editor, Frances McDormand as his adulterous lover, and Katie Holmes as a level-headed student. Ingenious scripting keeps Wonder Boys from lapsing into predictability, and the film benefits additionally from Hanson’s convincing replication of the academic milieu and his sharp character delineation. Released early in 2000 to largely favorable reviews but short-lived in the theaters, Wonder Boys seems destined to find a loyal and loving audience on video. It’s the kind of comedy that sneaks up on viewers and gets better with every screening. The DVD includes interviews with Hanson, Douglas, McDormand, and Macguire; an interactive location map of Pittsburgh, where Wonder Boys was shot; and best of all, the music video for Bob Dylan’s smashing title song, “Things Have Changed.” Ed Hulse
Director Curtis Hanson chooses a lineup of vintage rock and R&B for the musical side of his screen adaptation of Michael Chabon’s brilliant Wonder Boys. Foremost is Bob Dylan, who contributes a new rocker, “Things Have Changed,” as well as cuts from Blood on the Tracks, Oh Mercy, and Time Out of Mind. These 13 cuts do a fine job of limning Michael Douglas’s lead character’s confusion, regret, and weary-to-the-bone ambivalence. Smartly sequenced—soul giants Little Willie John and Clarence Carter fit perfectly alongside the likes of…
In Wonder Boys we meet James Leer, a troubled young “wonder boy” whose obsession with Hollywood suicides leads him to commit a pair of startling crimes. Thereby his destiny becomes entangled with that of his writing teacher, Grady Tripp, a former prodigy whose penchant for self-destruction is exceeded only by the twenty-six hundred pages of his unfinished magnum opus, Wonder Boys—a leviathan of a novel that is devouring his life. Joined by Terry Crabtree, Grady’s editor—another onetime boy wonder whose appetite for the bizarre has derailed a promising career—teacher and student set out across a mysterious nighttime landscape to search for a vision of redemption, a shot at literary fame, and the threadbare black satin jacket in which Marilyn Monroe wed Joe DiMaggio.