Robert Downey JrKatie HolmesMichael DouglasFrances McDormand
Wonder Boys
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Curtis Hanson
Writer: Michael Chabon, Steve Kloves
Keywords: Oscar-winning, favourite
Country: UK, Germany, USA, Japan [!]
Actor: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr, Katie Holmes, Rip Torn, Richard Knox, Jane Adams (II), Michael Cavadias, Richard Thomas, Alan Tudyk, Philip Bosco, George Grizzard, Kelly Bishop, Bill Velin, Charis Michelsen, Yusuf Gatewood, June Hildreth
Format: 107 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 10 November 2010
This one failed at the box office. The production team blamed Paramount's bad marketing and organised a re-release months later in time for the Oscar season, whereupon once again it failed at the box office. However it did pick up Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay (by Steven Kloves) and Best Film Editing and actually won an Oscar for Best Original Song. I'd go along with that. It's a good song. You'd stay in the cinema right to the end of the credits in order to listen to it. I'd made a note to look it up afterwards, and... Bob Dylan.
It's a lovely film, too. It nearly lost me early on, but in fact it's great.
What nearly lost me was the fact that Michael Douglas is playing a writer who wrote a near-masterpiece seven years ago and hasn't published anything since, despite the fact that he's lying to his agent about his latest manuscript being nearly finished and just needing a few more tweaks. There's a word for people like that. However fortunately the film isn't about writer's block. Instead it's fun. Douglas is a creative writing teacher whose wife has dumped him and is romantically entangled with the wife of the university chancellor, while on top of that his agent's in town and he's about to find himself babysitting a talented but odd student who's probably got Asperger's syndrome. There's also a dog who hates him and a honey of a pretty young thing who's renting his spare room.
This could have been an out-and-out comedy. They've certainly got the actors for it. You'd just hit the material at speed and exaggerate the emotional reactions. However what they've done instead is to make it real and emphasise the themes. Douglas isn't self-obsessed, but instead is really trying to help his students. The film cares about writing. It thinks it matters. Almost the entire cast is either a writer, an reader, a publisher or a wannabe. They've devoted their entire lives to it. It's like a sports movie in its focus on everyone's common goal, except that it's talking about novel-writing instead of, say, baseball.
In fact it's a journey of discovery. A broken man tries to help others discover themselves and of course is liable to prickle if he gets back any literary criticism in return. I also found it charming, in the way that these people are supporting each other and turning out to be allies when the comedic version of the film would have made them enemies. They'll secretly have clay feet, but they're not letting that stop them.
This is likeable. It's thoughtful, humane and adapted from a Michael Chabon novel. The screenwriter is Steven Kloves, by the way, who was the writer-director of The Fabulous Baker Boys before he ever got involved in Harry Potter. It's also directed by the man who'd previously done LA Confidential, who's said that one of his challenges here was to give a "feeling of focus" to a plot that he called "meandering and, apparently, sort of aimless", and a protagonist who "does things that even he doesn't really know why he's doing them". He does this really well. However the other side of the production is the impressive cast. We have...
1. Michael Douglas, whom I like a lot. He's up there with George Clooney for choosing interesting films and then doing good work in them. Here he jettisons his action man persona of the 1980s and 1990s, gained 25 pounds for the role and waived most of his usual fee because he wanted to do this movie.
2. Tobey Maguire, who's playing the socially awkward student who doesn't have an ounce of malice in him but still means any amount of trouble. Maguire's perfect. He's odd, sweet and hitting all the right notes as someone who's awkward without being unlikeable and will be recognised by geeks in the audience without alienating normals.
3. Robert Downey, Jr. is mighty. I can't believe there's anyone who doesn't love him. However in 2000 he was also self-destructing in public and currently on probation for drugs offences. Hanson wasn't sure about him, but Downey flew to Pittsburgh, talked about everything in depth and behaved with complete professionalism for four and a half months. Then after shooting had wrapped, he flew back to Los Angeles and violated his parole. However all that's just tittle-tattle and what's on screen is, as you'd expect, wonderful. If nothing else, his presence means you'll see Iron Man getting sexually predatory with Spider-Man.
4. Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Rip Torn... hell, there's even Alan Tudyk as a janitor. I couldn't place him until I looked him up on the internet afterwards and remembered Firefly. Holmes is adorable. McDormand is playing a bit of a McGuffin, but she stops you from noticing. It's a quality ensemble cast, in which everyone's worth watching and it's just fun to spend time with them.
The most worrying thing about the film, for me, was the opening announcement. "This film has been edited for content." I've been known to throw away discs that do that to me. However there's no nudity, gore or other extreme material, with the announcement simply meaning that Maguire's character at one point reels off a list of celebrity suicides and the family of one of them took offence. Paramount duly edited him out.
Oh, and at one point Maguire talks about heaven being a place of greenhouses where people wear white. I've seen it suggested that this means Zardoz.
This film made me want to get writing. I love the way they care so much about it. I like the academic community it portrays, with odd professors, earnest students and a complete immersion in their chosen discipline. The film made me laugh, but I remember it for its themes and characters rather than as a comedy. However that said, I'd recommend it to anyone and I think it's ridiculous that it didn't succeed at the box office. It deserves to be better known. You'd enjoy it, your friends would enjoy it and your mum would enjoy it. I'd have expected it to do solid business, although obviously it's not trying to be an action blockbuster.
Plus there's Bob Dylan, of course.
"I take it back. Shoot him."