All eyes were on director Curtis Hanson after his noirish sex-and-corruption hit, 1997's L.A. Confidential. Would he be able to follow that success with another, or would he become another Hollywood one-hit wonder? Fortunately, 2000's Wonder Boys was wonderful enough to answer the question, as it's every bit as well crafted and acted as L.A. Confidential. The best film of 2000 (no matter what the Oscar nominations said), this one's as smart, charming, and funny as its predecessor was dark and grim, which says something about Hanson's range. Wonder Boys shows us similar truths about Michael Douglas, whose deft, understated performance is among the best in his long career. And it's good to see Robert Downey Jr. prove yet again (remember Chaplin?) that he really is one of our finest actors and much more than troubled headline fodder. As a disturbed student in transition, Tobey Maguire delivers a performance so memorable that afterward you may not think about the long list of historical Hollywood suicides without smiling. Add Francis McDormand, Rip Torn, Katie Holmes, Marilyn Monroe's jacket, one unfinished 2,000-page novel, a dead dog in the trunk, a transvestite who plays tuba, and a stolen car that really belongs to a guy not named Vernon Hardapple, and you have that rare and precious thing an intelligent, unforced comedy ... with a dead-on accurate university setting ... about writers and writing, of all things ... that works every bit as well as L.A. Confidential did as a hardboiled crime drama.
There are at least two Wonder Boys here. The first is our narrator, Grady Tripp (Douglas), a university writing professor having a hard weekend. We meet him just after his third wife has left him. His girlfriend, Sara (McDormand), informs him that she's pregnant. Sara's husband is Grady's boss. Her blind dog hates Grady. Seven years ago Grady wrote a novel that made him famous but he's been unable to finish its successor. His editor, Terry Crabtree (Downey Jr.), has come to town expecting to read Grady's next success. It's the university's annual WordFest literary event, with the smugly successful writer, "Q" (Torn), as the guest speaker. To top that off, Grady smokes too much weed, has blackout "spells," and finds his life intertwining with that of his most promising student, James Leer (Maguire). James is the other "wonder boy" here. Just as Grady is a once-was, James is a soon-to-be genius author. Trouble is, he's also morose, evasive, and a compulsive liar. Other than Grady, the only person who gives James the time of day is fellow brilliant student Hannah Green (Holmes), who clearly would like to be more that just a boarder to Grady. At a party at the home of Sara and her husband (Richard Thomas), Grady and James begin to connect beyond the teacher-student level. Grady sneaks James to their hosts' upstairs room, where a secret closet holds Sara's husband's most prized possession the jacket Marilyn Monroe wore on her wedding day to Joe DiMaggio. Now, things would be fine if the family dog wasn't shot dead right there on the carpet. And that's within the first half-hour.
These components start the snowball plummeting, and by the end of the weekend Grady has to deal with the avalanche they trigger. Either everything in his life must shift as a result, or else Grady is going to end up like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty a less observant and less entertaining slice of life.
Because Wonder Boys is so skillfully driven by its characters and their realism rather than by a cookie-cutter plot or action sequences, Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys) avoid the easy clichés of comedy and midlife crisis that would have diminished everything after the set-up. There are a dozen places in Wonder Boys where any lesser movie would have turned right because "that's what's expected." Instead it turns left, shifts gears, and takes side streets we don't know are there until we're on our way through them. Somehow Hanson packs it all in without succumbing to the easy road of "zaniness," yet he also manages to maintain a brisk forward momentum as wildly disparate events somehow snap together like Lego blocks toward a freshly upbeat conclusion that works without feeling contrived or convenient. But this is a film about more than plot points and witty dialogue. It's about finding the right inspiration and making the right choices. Hanson and Kloves, it's abundantly clear, made a lot of right choices. (It's also faithfully scripted from a novel by one of the best new fiction writers to hit the scene in this generation, Michael Chabon.)
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Paramount's Wonder Boys DVD offers a faultless transfer (2.35:1, anamorphic) with strong, crisp audio in Dolby Digital 5.0.
There's no commentary track, but we do get an interactive Pittsburgh "location map" annotated by Hanson's commentary vignettes. We get junket interviews with Hanson, Douglas, McDormand, and Maguire discussing the film and each other in predictably PR fashion. Wonder Boys has a first-rate score, so "The Songs of Wonder Boys" (like album liner notes by Hanson) highlights Tim Hardin's "Reason To Believe," Neil Young's "Old Man," John Lennon's "Watching The Wheels," and songs by Bob Dylan, notably "Things Have Changed," which was written specially for the film. (It won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Original Song.) Also here is the theatrical re-release trailer and Hanson's music video for "Things Have Changed," which edits Dylan into footage from the film. Keep-case.
(Editor's Note: The first thing you see when playing Paramount's Wonder Boys DVD is a note that this edition has been "edited for content." IMDb.com notes "In the theatrical version Tobey Maguire mistakenly refers to Alan Ladd's death as a suicide. After complaints from Ladd's family, Paramount has announced that the offending line will be modified in all future releases of the film, including home video." Paramount has told us that this is the only change in the home-video version of Wonder Boys a seamless, unnoticeable edit that does not materially affect the film itself.)