Wonder Boys Review
After stunning audiences around the world with the brilliant L.A. Confidential, director Curtis Hanson chose another book adaptation to serve as the basis for his next feature. However, the subject matter of the two film's couldn't be more different, as Wonder Boys is a movie that'll spark a completely new set of emotions compared to his previous effort.
Grady Tripp is not having a good day. His wife has just left him; His publishing editor is in town to hound him for the book he has promised to deliver yet hasn’t finished for the last seven years and to make matters worse, he’s unsure of the future he has with his lover Sara, who happens to be married to his college professor boss. Not only this, Grady also finds himself dragged into messy situations by one of his English students, a talented-yet-off-the-wall young man with a propensity to mislead the truth. However, these events will take Grady on a journey he will never forget, and will help him re-assess the values of the life he has.
On paper, Wonder Boys shouldn’t have worked. Here’s a film extremely similar in the form of male mid-life crisis to American Beauty. The script by Steven Kloves, based on Michael Chabon’s novel, treats itself like an already established classic in which every line should be quoted years after our time has passed. Also, the film doesn’t have mass-market appeal – Katie Holmes is not exploited for the teen market and is only a minor player in the film, and there are no life turning sequences or advert friendly Thomas Newman score.
What Wonder Boys does have however, is a gushing amount of warmth that is not generated by unnecessary schmaltz or tacky contrivances. The performances are first rate – Michael Douglas surprises in what is a bitter, worn-down Grady Tripp. Frances McDormand gives her usual excellence as Sara, Grady’s love interest, and Robert Downey Jr. gives his frenetic quirkiness to editor Terry Crabtree. The only lowlight being monotonous Tobey Maguire (he better not screw up as Peter Parker in Spiderman!). Full marks to director Curtis Hanson for giving Wonder Boys the delicateness the script deserves, but then we know of his talents after seeing L.A. Confidential. Hanson has hand picked various musical cuts from such classic albums to fill the soundtrack, such as Lennon’s Watching The Wheels and Neil Young’s Old Man from the brilliant Harvest album. However, the real highlight is Dylan’s specifically penned Oscar winning Things Have Changed, which perfectly sets the tone of the film through the opening credits.
Wonder Boys will enthrall you with its rich characters, perfectly realised locations and believable yet imaginative situations. It flopped on release, but Paramount deemed it good enough to get a second chance. It's a film that will generate a small army of fans as the years go by, and it'll be warmly regarded as a favourite by many whose lives are mirrored by those on screen.
Academy Awards 2000
Best Original Song - Bob Dylan "Things Have Changed"
Academy Award Nominations 2000
Best Adapted Screenplay - Steven Kloves
Best Film Editing - Dede Allen
The visual quality of Wonder Boys is slightly disappointing when it comes to the transfer. Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, the picture is relatively blemish free but possesses a washed out look that certainly wasn’t present on the cinema version. Even so, this isn’t too much of a detracting factor, but it could have been better.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is quite liberating for the relative lack of space required for sound effects and dialogue in Wonder Boys. The songs sound crystal clear and boom out on the soundtrack and the best, most noticeable scenes are ones of heavy rain, where you actually feel the cold chill because of the atmospheric sound.
Menu: An interesting animated menu that revolves around a type writer typing out all of the options of the DVD. The menu also features music from the film.
Packaging: A slightly underwhelming design, featuring the usual amaray template of Paramount's Widescreen Collection and featuring a one page chapter-listing insert.
Exclusive Cast Interviews: Various soundbites from the cast and crew that is generally just each of them heaping praise on the other members. It's a pity that a proper and informative making of wasn’t featured instead.
Pittsburgh Interactive Map With Curtis Hanson Commentary: An interactive map detailing the locations used to create the atmospheric mood of Wonder Boys with a commentary by Curtis Hanson. Slightly informative, and only of interest if you are from Pittsburgh to be honest.
Songs Of Wonder Boys With Curtis Hanson: Curtis Hanson talking of the reasoning behind the songs featured in Wonder Boys and the purposes they have for the narrative drive. What’s a shame about this is that he doesn’t mention every song on the soundtrack!
Bob Dylan: Things Have Changed – Music Video: It’s always a nice change to have a music video of a key song from a film, especially from someone as heavyweight as Bob Dylan. The video incorporates many scenes and many of the actors from Wonder Boys and features the man himself singing along. Very nice indeed.
Theatrical Trailer: The trailer is presented in a farcical ‘having-a-bad-day’ black comedy. It's tenuous that Wonder Boys could fit this bill, but this really isn’t its essential core theme.
Wonder Boys is full of warmth, something that American Beauty, although superior, lacked and made up for in melodramatic schmaltz. The extras are disappointing, as no commentary or proper documentary are included. However, Wonder Boys is one of those rare films whereby if you like it enough to buy it you won’t care about the extras anyway.