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WONDER BOYS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Robert Downey Jr.
Director: Curtis Hanson
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.0, French Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 112 Minutes
Release Date: March 13, 2001

Film ****

There has hardly ever been a character piece as quirky and fascinating as Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys. The movie is filled left and right with fresh, original characterizations. The story consists of a series of strange incidents that occur during the weekend of a prestigious literary festival at a college in Pittsburgh.

At the center of the film’s quirky world is Grady Tripp, played by magnificently restrained Michael Douglas. Grady is a creative writing professor who is not very far from being considered a has been in the writing world. Now in his 50s, Grady did hit success once when his first novel, written seven years ago, became a huge best seller. Nowadays Grady, whose wife has just left him, is close to rock bottom, believed to have been stricken with writers block, constantly stoned on pot, being aggravatingly pursued by his editor named Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), who keeps hounding Grady on his nearly completed new novel, having an affair with Sara (Frances McDormand), who’s the wife of the head of the English department, being slowly but surely pursued by Hannah (Katie Holmes), a female student and becoming acquainted with another student, the extremely eccentric James Leer (Tobey Maguire), who has a gift for writing, but turns out to be a compulsive liar. In a brilliant scene, Leer is able to thoroughly recount the number of celebrity suicides, without a single stutter.

Grady and Leer form an unlikely alliance following the shooting of Sara’s dog who was attacking Grady. The two then take the dog’s corpse and hide it in Grady’s trunk. The night then consists of the two getting stoned off of codeine, disrupting a presentation at the literary festival, and having a run-in with a man at a bar who believes that the two have stolen his car, for which he later provides a dent. The rest of the weekend isn’t much pleasant either, as Grady’s troubles seem to escalate by the minute. The local police begin questioning him in the events of the previous night, and possibly suspecting Leer took a valuable piece from Sara’s home. Sara confesses to Grady about possible doubts of the future of their adulterous relationship. All of these stressful events in his life prevent Grady from completing his novel, which we see him attempt to do in one scene under the most struggling circumstances.

I could go on to reveal other plot points, but I feel as if I have revealed too much already. Wonder Boys excels in its every moment. It achieves something that is rare to accomplish, it mixes moments of screwball comedy and is still able to tell a very poignant story of the fall of a true literary mind, and his struggle to regain his talent and overcome his writers block. At the core of the film is the relationship between Grady and Leer, both of which are, or were, writing geniuses that also happen to have numerous flaws in their personal lives. Leer’s flaws consists mainly of not being a very social person. Since Grady and Leer can’t really relate to anyone presently, they are very much able to relate to one another, and this relationship is perfected wonderfully throughout the movie.

The cast is simply remarkable! Douglas has long been known for playing edgy characters under extraordinary circumstances, and although Grady Tripp is a man under very extraordinary circumstances, this character is totally 180 from any character Douglas has ever played, and it shows. Tobey Maguire’s performance is pure proof that he has arrived as a serious young actor. He has provided many memorable performances in such films as The Ice Storm and The Cider House Rules, but his performance in Wonder Boys is by far his most remarkable. Robert Downey Jr. continues to be one of the most energetic and underrated actors of our time, and his work here, especially in the movie’s final moments is simply marvelous.

After the success of the brilliant L.A. Confidential, director Curtis Hanson has fashioned yet another wonderful movie, filled with terrific individual moments that add up to a wholly enjoyable movie experience. There’s no wonder about it, Wonder Boys is an absolute winner, and one of the year’s greatest movies.

TAKE A BOW, CURTIS!

Video ****

First off, let me just state for the record that this is the longest time I’ve ever waited for the release of a single movie on DVD following a theatrical run, ever since Bulworth nearly two years ago. Paramount had frequently been delaying the release of Wonder Boys due to the desire of wanting to re-release it in theaters to generate Oscar buzz. I missed this one in the theaters, unfortunately, but now I’m very grateful that I finally got to see it. Now, on to the great news. A grand video job from Paramount, who have applied all of their usual quality to this transfer. The picture is thoroughly and consistently sharp and clear, and deprived of any grain. Colors are displayed to true perfection, even in numerous dark scenes. An A+ quality transfer that illustrates Paramount’s reign of perfected DVD releases.

Audio ***1/2

This movie is made up primarily of dialogue, and yet this audio transfer still shines. Paramount this time around has issued a 5.0 digital track instead of the usual 5.1, though I really couldn’t tell a distinction. Numerous songs are played throughout the movie, all of which are heard very clearly with immense digital quality. A nice surprise for such a film.

Features ***1/2

Paramount has issued a pleasing array of extras for this long awaited release. Structured much like the DVD for L.A. Confidential, this disc includes an interactive tour of the setting of Wonder Boys, with director Curtis Hanson giving us some insight into the history of the places in which he used to film certain scenes. Also included is a interview segment titled “A Look Between the Pages”, a section devoted to the soundtrack of the movie, which includes the music video for Bob Dylan’s wonderful song from the film, “Things Have Changed”. Also included is a trailer for the film as well.

Summary:

Wonder Boys is magnificently done character study of the unusual kind. Fans of true original work are in for a knockout of a treat, filled to the brim with wonderful performances, and grand directing from a rising directing prodigy.