Monday, February 4, 2008

WONDER BOYS (Paramount 2000) Paramount Home Video

Based on the brilliant novel by Michael Chabon, Curtis Hanson’s sadly underrated, Wonder Boys (2000) is a masterpiece. Shot in sequence, in and around Pittsburgh, with many scenes taking place at Carnegie Mellon University, the film is a grand potpourri of great acting and a showcase of poignant true-to-life comedy put over by an impeccable cast.

Michael Douglas stars as Professor Grady Tripp. It seems that Grady’s entire career as an English professor is based on one magnificent stroke of good luck; a novel he penned in his youth – Arsonist’s Daughter. That book and the publicity it garnered set Grady up as a literary giant.

Unfortunately, it also has proven to be his downfall. Assessing that he could never write another just as good, Grady gave up trying long ago and has allowed himself instead to decline in both his prestige and popularity.

In truth, Grady is disillusioned with life. His days are spent encouraging the next generation of writers in his classroom, dodging his quirky homosexual agent, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), smoking marijuana on the sly and having a secret romance with Professor Walter Gaskell’s (Richard Thomas) wife; Sara (Frances McDormand) – who also happens to be the Dean of the university.

But Grady hasn’t lost his ability to spot a diamond in the rough. His latest discovery is James Leer (Tobey McGuire) – a reclusive, offbeat and slightly suicidal student writer who delights in creating subtle controversy through his prose. Only Grady and fellow student Hannah Green (Katie Holmes) recognize James’ gift for authorship. After running away from home – and being rescued from certain disaster by Grady, James is nominated for a prestigious literary prize. Crabtree, whose motives are not entirely professional, offers James his chance at the big time.

The screenplay by Steve Kloves intertwines the lives of all these mismatched souls into one tight-knit ball of emotional intensity. Both Grady and James’ insecurities resonates with the audience, perhaps because we've all had dreams like theirs prematurely dashed - leaving us disillusioned and deflated. Writing this good rarely comes along in American movies these days and it's such a shame to know that it went virtually unacknowledged by both audiences and critics when the film premiered.

The entire cast is excellent. As the morally bankrupt academic who finds redemption in the arms of a married woman, Douglas adds yet another subtly nuanced performance to his repertoire. Downey Jr. does as much with his effortless crazy-quilt of a cakewalk as the unscrupulous agent in search of his next big score in the literary world and elsewhere. McDormand is perhaps slightly wasted in the limited role of the dean, but Katie Holms excels as the smart and sassy girl who can figure things out for herself.

Singer/song writer Bob Dillon’s ‘Things Have Changed’ took home the Best Song Oscar. At the time of its theatrical release, Wonder Boys was virtually overlooked as a quiet little nothing. It became an abysmal financial disaster for Paramount Studios, who yanked the film from circulation, re-edited it, then dumped it back on the market. Nothing helped. The film tanked and quickly ended up in the 'reduced bin' of local video retailers. That Wonder Boys miserably failed to find its audience then – and has all but remained absent from most critic's top ten lists since - is a colossal shame. This is a movie that deserves much further consideration and respect.


Paramount's DVD contains an anamorphic image that is bright, sharp, well defined and thoroughly beguiling. Colors are rich and fully saturated. Flesh tones are quite natural in appearance. Contrast levels are bang on with solid blacks and very clean whites. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and very well suited for this primarily dialogue-driven film vehicle. Extras are limited to Dillon’s music video, and audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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