Wonder Boys

Directed by Curtis Hanson
Starring: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes, Rip Torn, Richard Thomas.
MPAA Rating: R for language and drug content.

Review by Matt Heffernan
February 27, 2000

After a long career of mediocrity, Curtis Hanson finally made his masterpiece in 1997: L.A. Confidential (one of the best films of the 1990s, and it almost makes you forget about 1983's Losin' It). Now, over two years later, he presents his follow-up, and proves that he's finally hit his stride at nearly 55 years old.

Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp: an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an acclaimed novelist. On a single day, his entire life is changed. First thing in the morning, his latest child bride leaves him -- but that's just the start of it. He's been having an affair with Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), the school's chancellor and wife of the English Department head (Richard Thomas). She announces that she's pregnant, which is something that her marital relationship would not warrant.

Also, Grady's editor (Robert Downey Jr.) has flown in to check on the progress of his latest novel: a leviathan work several years in the making. Meanwhile, his brightest student (Tobey Maguire) thrusts his personal crises on him. There is also a young female student (Katie Holmes) living in his house that wants to take advantage of the professor's new marital status. It's been quite a day, but it only starts there.

I don't want to give away any more of Wonder Boys, except to say that all these elements come together in the most amusing way. Douglas gives his best performance in years, making this the best film of the year so far. In fact, he's been on quite a roll with his Wall Street performance being featured in Boiler Room, which places him in both of 2000's best offerings. His character in this film, however, is quite different from any other he has played. He's sort of like Jeff Bridges' character in The Big Lebowski: "The Dude" -- except that he managed to get an education and lucked into a respectable career.

Not only is this a switch for Douglas, but for Hanson as well. He didn't let the success of L.A. Confidential dictate how this film would go. Instead, he gives un an entirely new vision. A slightly weak third act and a conventional ending keep it from reaching the same level, but it is still a worthy effort and an exceptionally good film. It proves that Hanson doesn't need to stick to a genre like noir; he just needs to keep assembling great casts and finding good screenplays -- this time from Steven Kloves (writer and director of The Fabulous Baker Boys), based on the novel by Michael Chabon.

Well, things should be looking up for Hanson. In our current world of young directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Kevin Smith, we forget that some directors didn't make their best work until their late 50s, after years behind the camera. The best example, of course, is Hitchcock -- he peaked after thirty years of directing. He made Rear Window at 55 and went on to his most consistent period, including the consecutive Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. I can't say that Hanson has that ahead of him, but it does give us hope.

Just in case this review isn't long enough, here's a little note:

Despite a healthy career in TV movies, this is Thomas' first feature film in 12 years -- 22 years if you don't count the two Roger Corman cheapies that he made in the ten years after September 30, 1955 (which premiered in 1978). You have to go back another six years to find his previous film, made just before "The Waltons" began. And yet, when McDormand came on the screen, a woman sitting behind me asked her friend if that was the actress from Fargo. Her friend said "No", but when Thomas appeared she blurted out "John-Boy!" Just another little story about the decline of human civilization.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Wonder Boys (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Wonder Boys (2000) -- VHS
Wonder Boys (2000) -- DVD
Wonder Boys, a novel by Michael Chabon -- Hardcover
Wonder Boys, a novel by Michael Chabon -- Paperback
Wonder Boys, a novel by Michael Chabon -- Audio Cassette (read by David Colacci)
Wonder Boys: Music From The Motion Picture -- Compact Disc


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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan