Wonder Boys [DVD]
Screenplay : Steve Kloves (based on the novel by Michael Chabon)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Michael Douglas (Grady Tripp), Tobey Maguire (James Leer), Frances McDormand (Sara Gaskell), Robert Downey Jr. (Terry Crabtree), Katie Holmes (Hannah Green), Rip Torn (Quentin Morewood), Richard Thomas (Walter Gaskell)
Wonder Boys is a film that desperately needs to let go. It takes place over one weekend where anything that can go wrong does go wrong, but the whole film feels like it is constantly holding back, restraining itself from going along with its own inherently absurd subject matter, as if it were too dignified to admit its own wackiness. The result is a somewhat static, randomly funny movie that leaves little impact. Its stubborn insistence on constantly reminding us that it is about something important renders most of its more outrageous humor impotent.
This seems particularly strange considering that it was directed by Curtis Hanson, whose critically adored L.A. Confidential (1997) was such an astounding success primarily because he allowed the film to run freely on its own rampant, seedy course through the darkest avenues of Los Angeles in the 1950s. Wonder Boys might have been a better movie if he had given it that kind of freedom.
Michael Douglas stars as Grady Tripp, a middle-age, heavy pot-smoking college English professor whose novel, The Anarchist's Daughter was a critical success seven years ago, and he hasn't produced anything since. He teaches writing workshop classes at a Pittsburgh university during the day, and in his free time he works on his upcoming project, which has already passed 2,600 pages. Having already achieved incredible success, Grady is caught in a rut of not being able to follow that success--he is in danger of being a "one-hit wonder," and he knows it.
When the film opens, Grady's third wife has just left him, his nosy New York editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), is in town, and he has just been told by Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), the married woman with whom he is having an affair, that she is pregnant. Of course, things are even more complicated because Sara is not only chancellor of the university, but she is married to the dean of the English department, Grady's boss. Grady and Sara's relationship is complex and at the point where they must make a decision about how much further they want to take it.
Grady, unfortunately, is constantly having to take care of business, whether that be trying to track down his soon-to-be-ex-wife, driving home the transvestite Crabtree picked up at the airport, or deciding what to do with the Haskells' dog, who was shot by one of his students at a cocktail party. The dog-killer is James Lear (Tobey Maguire), an aspiring young writer with a penchant for lying and a depressed demeanor that constantly suggests suicide. Much of the film is about the relationship between Grady and James, and how Grady helps James see another side of life (which amounts to James spending most of the film smoking Grady's plentiful supply of marijuana).
As that brief plot synopsis makes clear, there is a lot going on in Wonder Boys. But, despite the hectic running around, police involvement, overlapping problems, and constant crises, the film never picks up any pace. Instead, it slowly moves along its course, with only the occasional funny moment of dialogue to give it any spice.
Grady remains an interesting character throughout the film, and Michael Douglas does a nice job of maintaining a sense of balance, even in the most dire of circumstances. Of course, that may be part of the film's problem. It seems like a foregone conclusion that Grady will eventually lose it at some point, after seeing not one but two relationships with women going down the drain, getting bit in the ankle, having to drive around with a dead dog in his trunk, having his house trashed by a party he didn't throw, dealing with James' stealing a priceless jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe from the Haskells' house, misleading the police, having his car stolen, and being trapped writing a 2,600-page manuscript that is obviously going nowhere.
There is a point near the end of the film where something very bad happens to the book he has been working on for seven years (being an old-fashioned writer, he uses a typewriter only, and one of the major lessons learned in "Wonder Boys" is to use a word processor so you can save your work), and you would think that this would be the breaking point. This is where Grady has to lose it...and he doesn't. This isn't so much a testament to Grady's strength as a character, but rather another illustration of what appears to be the film's absolute refusal to give in to raw emotion. We need some kind of explosive catharsis here, but the film doesn't deliver.
Because of this, the relationship between Grady and James never quite comes together, and scenes of absolute hilarity are reduced to being merely amusing. It's a testament to the movie's tightness that even Robert Downey Jr. is unable to make much of an impression as the flamboyant, yet sad Crabtree. It's a role he should have been able to sink his teeth into, but nothing much ever comes of it. Bearing all this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the film ends in the classical Hollywood fashion, with all the lose ends tied up and all the necessary lessons learned--the most important, of course, being to save your work on disk.
|Wonder Boys DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby 5.0 Surround |
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Languages||English (5.0), French (2.0)|
|Supplements|| Wonder Boys: Between the Pages cast and crew interviews|
Pittsburgh interactive location map with director's commentary
Songs of Wonder Boys with director's commentary
"Things Have Changed" Bob Dylan music video
Re-release theatrical trailer
| Visually, Wonder Boys is a fairly dark movie. It takes place in Pittsburgh in the dead of winter, and many of the scenes either take place at night or in interior rooms dominated by dark wood paneling (especially Grady's house). The anamorphic transfer on this disc (in the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio) maintains the film's unique look without dipping into murkiness. The image is crystal-clear and very detailed, with good color saturation and solid black levels. There is no artifacting or other flaws, and the print used for the transfer looks to have been clean and free of flaws. Overall, a very nice transfer. |
On a side note, the film opens with a disclaimer that "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been edited for content." For those who don't know, this disclaimer was included because, in the scene in which James rattles off the names of Hollywood stars who committed suicide, his mention of Alan Ladd (the star of Shane) was omitted for home video release after complaints from Ladd's family during the film's initial theatrical run. Although many believe he did commit suicide (Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia refers to his death as an "apparent suicide"), Ladd's death in 1964 by combining alcohol and sedatives has been ruled an accident.
|Rendered in Dolby Digital 5.0 surround, the soundtrack sounds good throughout. The film is primarily dialogue, although director Curtis Hanson is very particular in employing classic rock music from the late 1960s at key moments throughout the film. All of the music sounds clear and nicely separated among the five speakers. The low-frequency effects channel is not particularly missed as there are no moments of extreme bass.|
| This disc is outfitted with a good, if somewhat eclectic, set of supplements. |
First up is Wonder Boys: Between the Pages, 12 minutes of interviews with stars Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, and Tobey Maguire, and director Curtis Hanson. The interviews don't amount to much--mostly talk about how great everyone else was to work with--although I thought McDormand did a nice job of explaining how she saw her character's role in the film as compared to her role in the original novel. The interviews are edited together with brief behind-the-scenes shots and a few clips from the film.
Most interesting is an interactive map of Pittsburgh that details each of the locations (the idea perhaps borrowed from the DVD of Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, which employed a similar set-up to explore Los Angeles?). Each major location in the film, including Grady's house, the university (actually Carnegie-Melon), and the jazz club, is given a brief explanation by Hanson, augmented with historical photographs. It's a brief, but excellent example of the centrality of location to good storytelling (plus, Hanson shows how bridges, which are a major thematic motif, recur over and over again in the film, something you may not have noticed).
The disc also includes a section devoted to the film's music. This section has a brief introduction by Hanson, and then shows the clips in the films in which particular songs were used with audio commentary by Hanson. It's not very good if you're interested in hearing the songs themselves (for that, you need to go buy the soundtrack on CD), but it is illuminating in terms of explaining why Hanson chose each song and used it where he did in the film. This section also includes the music video for the film's theme song, Bob Dylan's "Things Have Changed."
Lastly, the disc included not the original theatrical trailer, but rather the re-release trailer. Paramount Pictures was roundly criticized when it first released Wonder Boys in February of 2000 for botching the advertising campaign, which was blamed for the film's lackluster performance at the box office. Credit should be given to Paramount, though, for believing in the film enough to mount a re-release campaign at the end of 2000, complete with a new poster design (which serves as the cover art for the DVD) and a new trailer, which is included here (it prominently features many acclamatory quotes from critics and emphasizes the film's ensemble cast).
©2000, 2001 James Kendrick