Wonder Boys – Review

Wonder Boys is one of those very rare things. A perfect movie. That isn’t something I state lightly. A lot of people would disagree with this and point out that it was a box office failure upon both its initial release and subsequent re-release. For me, the film is a winning combination of a number of factors. There is the cast featuring the talents of Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Toby Maguire, Katie Holmes and Robert Downey Jr. who are all on top form here. The screenplay is based on the novel of the same name by Michael Chabon and the direction comes from Curtis Hanson who was using this film as the follow up to his smash hit L.A. Confidential.

Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is having a bit of a rough day. On the surface, he is a novelist of note and a well-regarded professor of English at a local Pittsburgh university. The problems are all under the surface. His third wife has just left him. His editor is in town looking for the next great novel that is seven years overdue and currently runs to over 2600 pages. His recreational use of marijuana is becoming more than just a habit. He is having unexplained blackouts and his girlfriend, the chancellor of the university who is married to his boss has just told him that she is pregnant. So begins Tripp’s long weird weekend.

The film grabs you from the opening scene in a creative writing class. Using a voice over the character of Tripp is introduced. From this initial monologue we are introduced to three of the main characters, get a flavour of the tone of the story and get our first glimpse of the Director’s stylistic choices. It is wholly absorbing, heightens your interest and makes you pay attention. Not bad for only two minutes of screen time.

The characters are very well drawn. From the principals to the array of supporting talent, each is introduced in a naturalistic and interesting manner. There has been a lot of thought in developing the various people who interact with Tripp. They all have something about them that makes them seem like they are actually real people. None are exaggerated to the point of parody but the film takes into account that there are always going to be certain eccentricities within the world of academia that can add flavour to the story.

We can see that Tripp is a mess right from the off. A typical academic, he is slovenly, tired and out of sorts with all around him. It is his wit and painful honesty that draws you in and it is impossible to not feel sympathy for him despite most of the problems he has being of his own making. Douglas threw himself into the role, gaining 25 pounds to better portray the man who is fading fast but is still under the illusion that he is holding it together. He uses humour and wit to mask his problems but has got to the point that it isn’t enough as more people see what he has become.

As you would expect from such rich source material, the dialogue in the screenplay is pin sharp. There are no wasted characters, scenes or exchanges. Everything is economical without sacrificing the story. Given that this is a film that centres around creative writing, the language used is of utmost importance. The choices made in phrases emphasises the world in which the characters exist. For instance, instead of someone describing a handgun incident, they don’t say that they shot twice but use the more descriptive phrase of taking two to the chest.  The film is full of these little moments and it adds immensely to the tone of the story.

There is a very nice balance between pacing and storytelling. To be able to do both and still keep the audience engaged and informed is not an easy task. Wonder Boys makes it look so. Credit here is down the direction and editing. The stylistic choices the director uses with shallow focus shots, visually storytelling and the use of non-verbal cues works very well with scenes that are tightly edited to emphasise both the comedy and dramatic beats of the movie. As with the best of cinema, if you are engaged with the film then you don’t really notice these elements when they are working so well.

Wonder Boys is a film that is worth seeking out. A bit of a gem in my opinion.

John McArthur
Latest posts by (see all)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.