Doesn't it sounds like a movie about a group of preteen superheroes? Nope...it's about a middle-aged college prof trying to write a book. Read Judge Norman Short's second ruling du jour.
Undependable. Unpredictable. Unforgettable.
Wonder Boys is about a lot of things, but the choices made in the film defies it to be truly about anything. It is a wacky comedy, except it's not. It's a tale of the teacher mentor and student who learn from each other, but only in part. It's a tale of dissolution, of fear of failure, of the aftermath of success and the journey to find where to go. As much as it is about all of these things, perhaps it is a tale of writing, and writers. As a writer myself I found a deep kinship with the film, but it is more than any of the things described. If all of this sounds confusing, it won't after you see Wonder Boys, one of the best films of 2000 and woefully overlooked both at the box office and with the Academy. I say this despite the fact it has been nominated three times, for Best Screenplay, Editing, and Best Song. It should have been on the Best Picture list, and was far more deserving than some I could name (*cough*Chocolat*cough*) but won't. Director Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential) has succeeded where his main character fears he will not; in being able to follow one critically acclaimed work with another.
Facts of the Case
Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas, looking worn, unkempt, and decidedly un-movie-star-like) is an acclaimed English professor at a liberal arts college. Grady's first novel, "Arsonist's Daughter," won critical acclaim but it has been far too long without another book, leading to the inevitable belief that he is either a one hit wonder or suffering from writer's block. Grady isn't suffering from writer's block; he just can't figure out how to stop writing, and his book is approaching the 3000-page mark without an ending. His editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) is under pressure to release the much-anticipated follow-up, but Grady keeps putting him off. Meanwhile, Grady's personal life is a mess. His wife (who we never see, except in a photograph) has left him. His girlfriend Sarah (Frances McDormand), who is both Chancellor of the college and married to Grady's boss, is pregnant with his child. A student named Hannah (Katie Holmes), who rents a room in his house, looks like she wishes it was his room she was staying in. Then there's James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a dark, brooding young man who seems to be both suicidal and a pathological liar, but who is effortlessly able to outshine (and out-write) his peers. Grady decides to take James under his wing, with unexpected results involving a dead dog, a stolen car, and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. The film takes place over a weekend during a literary festival where the characters weave in and out of Grady's pot-smoking stupor, as he tries to handle each crisis while attempting to finish his overly long and long delayed novel.
A "Wonder Boy," as the film explains, is someone who early in their career does something truly outstanding, and the problem with being one is following up that great first effort. In this Grady and James Leer are soulmates of a sort, though the younger man hasn't had to face the aftermath of greatness just yet. Grady has to face this everyday, and has turned to smoking pot and taking pills to numb the effects, becoming an intellectual without direction, who can coast on his tenured position without having to make any hard decisions. This translates into his writing, where his book goes on and on in ever increasing detail as he cannot make decisions on what to leave out. As Hannah tells him when she gets a sneak peek, "You seem not to have made any decisions…At all." Decision making is a key theme in the film.
Despite the many faults of the character, Michael Douglas keeps you rooting for him. His performance is both magnificent and understated, without pretension, and I believe his finest work. His character, as are the rest, are well drawn and real people, escaping the cookie cutter pigeonholing that might place them as copies of something you've seen in another film. Robert Downey Jr. is utterly real in his role, Frances McDormand is her no-nonsense self, Katie Holmes shows a depth hitherto unseen, and Tobey Maguire pulls off the immaturity, darkness and light of his character while maintaining the credibility of being a creative genius. There are a couple of Oscar worthy performances here, but the Academy has become more swayed by marketing than movies.
All these great performances are made possible by one of the most intelligent scripts I've seen of late. I certainly hope the screenplay wins at Oscar time, since it is the most significant of the awards for which it was nominated. Though Grady cannot make tough choices, the story does; where the film could have easily become melodrama, sugary sweet sentiment, or screwball comedy, it avoids all these to remain a cohesive whole. Few films can move from humor to poignancy with such grace.
The film has a very interesting look as well, thanks in large part to cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Set in Pittsburgh in winter, the often-drab scenery gives way to a snowy scenic landscape, with ample use of the city's many bridges. Ever since becoming a fan of George Romero, I've become ever more attached to Pittsburgh as a setting for films. The color scheme moves from dark and dreary at times to warm and golden, with some brightly colorful scenes for flavor. I was very impressed, as I was with all the technical aspects of the film.
The buzz is that the film is a shoo-in for an Oscar for Best Song, which is Bob Dylan's "Things Are Changing." It is a very good song, and fits with the late '60s to early '70s poetry inspired music that makes up the musical part of the soundtrack. It fit well with the character of Grady and his era.
I'm running out of aspects to gush about, so I'll just say that the film is witty, charming, real, funny, poignant, intelligent, and satisfying.
The DVD presentation is quite good, especially from Paramount that hasn't been putting much effort into extra features. Surprisingly it is shot and displayed in 2.35:1 aspect ratio; I'd have expected a more intimate frame for such a human driven film. Though there are a few instances of scratches or blemishes from the source print, the anamorphic transfer is without flaw. Another excellent picture from Paramount. Less impressive but still fine is the Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack. The music sounds very nice, with warmth that had to come from the mix, since my own sound system tends more the opposite. Dialogue is anchored to the center and is always clearly audible, which is the most important thing since this is a dialogue driven film. Surrounds are used only subtly for ambiance and only rarely at that. A nice soundtrack, but not one that you'll think much about after hearing.
Paramount gives us a decent mix of extra content, especially for the studio that typically restrains itself to only a trailer. First is a short feature of cast and crew interviews, which has more depth than a promotional feature. I would caution that this isn't one of those pieces that assume you have not seen the film, and even gives away the ending, so do not view it until after the film. Director Curtis Hanson then narrates a location map feature, giving background information about the homes and places used in the film. The next section is all about the music in the film, where Hanson again narrates about the choices of several of the songs and their placement. A music video of Bob Dylan's "Things Are Changing" is next; a fairly interesting piece where the stars of the film help out and seemingly place Dylan into the film. It is also shot in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which was surprising. A song list (a fairly obvious plug for the soundtrack CD) completes this section, and a trailer finishes out the extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps the only rebuttal I could make is the lack of a commentary track. Apparently Curtis Hanson didn't want to do one, since he was available for the rest of the extra content. I would have liked to hear even more detail about the story and the reasoning behind the characters and choices made.
What are you waiting for? Run, do not walk, and get a copy of this film on DVD. It truly is one of the best films of the year, and deserves every accolade I could give. The DVD quality is fine, with enough extra content to add even more impetus for purchase.
My commendations to all involved with the film, and the case is dismissed, with only a request for commentary tracks from director Curtis Hanson added in sidebar.
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