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PARAMOUNT PICTURES

MOVIE INFO
Director: Curtis Hanson
Cast: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Rip Torn, Robert Downey Jr.
Screenplay: Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon

Tagline: Undependable. Unpredictable. Unforgettable.
Box Office: Budget $35 million. Opening weekend $5.808 million on 1253 screens. Domestic gross $19.389 million.
MPAA: Rated R for language and drug content.

Academy Awards: Won for Best Song-Bob Dylan "Things Have Changed". Nominated for Best Screenplay; Best Editing.

DVD DETAILS
Presentation: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.0, French Dolby Surround
Subtitles: English; Closed-captioned

Runtime: 122 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 3/13/2001.

Bonus:
• 12-minute Cast and Crew Interviews "A Look Between the Pages"
• Pittsburgh Interactive Location Map with Commentary By Curtis Hanson
• Songs of Wonder Boys with Commentary by Curtis Hanson
• Bob Dylan “Times Have Changed” Music Video
• Theatrical Trailer.


PURCHASE
DVD
Novel
Music soundtrack
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EQUIPMENT
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RELATED REVIEWS


Wonder Boys (2000)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Not many directors can alter the early impressions made by their work, but Curtis Hanson seems to have effected just such a change. After all, this was the guy who made a name with semi-cheesy thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. I never expected him to create a film that contained any true substance.

However, that’s exactly what he did with 1997’s LA Confidential. That picture provided a crackling film noir that paid homage to movies from the past but also seemed new and fresh. Were it not for the juggernaut called Titanic, chances are excellent it would have won the Best Picture Oscar for that year.

As his follow-up to LA Confidential, Hanson chose a project even farther from his roots: Wonder Boys, a quiet, introspective comedy about breaking out of well-established patterns and making connections. While it’s not nearly as strong a picture as LA Confidential, Wonder Boys nonetheless offers a well-executed and stimulating program.

WB follows middle-aged college professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), who teaches a writing class at a Pittsburgh university. Grady made a name with “The Arsonist’s Daughter” some years earlier, but after the success of that prize-winning novel, he hasn’t been able to complete a subsequent book. In a reverse of the expected pattern, however, it isn’t writer’s block that holds up the process; instead, Grady finds himself unable to stop composing as his text eventually exceeds 2600 pages!

For a variety of reasons, Grady’s life comes to a head during one weekend when the college hosts its writing awards ceremony. During that time, his wife leaves him, his editor visits and pressures him for the finished book, and… well, a lot of stuff happens. I don’t want to go through it all, partially because I don’t want to provide any potential spoilers. I also don’t want my review to fill 2600 pages, which it might if I cover all of the subplots in WB.

Strangely, I didn’t actually realize just how many bits of business fill WB until I attempted to write this synopsis. I think that’s a tribute to Hanson’s skill as a director and to the script from Scott Kloves. At times I felt that some of the action felt contrived and unrealistic, but most of it blended together fairly naturally. Most movies with so many subplots would feel insanely “busy”, but that wasn’t the case here. If anything, the film almost seems drowsy at times; it’s not until I looked back on it that I noticed just how much occurred.

On the other hand, the action is odd in that almost all of it fits into “MacGuffin” territory. That means most of the intrigue really doesn’t matter in the greater scheme of things; a lot of the bits are just devices that seem important at the time but are not very worthwhile on their own.

Ultimately, WB is very character-driven, and the pieces of business serve simply to guide our characters into certain interactions. As a whole, the different parts are interesting, but only Grady receives any sort of deep exposition. He’s the only character we ever begin to understand and explore to a great degree. His student/semi-apprentice James (Tobey Maguire) starts as an enigma and remains that way through much of the film, and editor Terry (Robert Downey Jr.) exists as little more than a plot device. The school’s chancellor and Grady’s love interest Sara (Frances McDormand) gets little exposure, and sexy student/boarder at Grady’s house Hannah (Katie Holmes) seems to be in the film just as an example of the road Grady normally would take.

Since the movie is about challenging usual patterns, I guess such a device is necessary, but it would have been nice to see greater exploration of the supporting characters. Nonetheless, the solid cast makes the different roles seem better developed than they are. Maguire is especially good as the aloof and mysterious James. Maguire has always seemed like such an earnest actor that it’s interesting to see him play such a diffident, dishonest role, and he does quite well in the part.

Douglas also provides a more rich characterization than usual. He’s always been the leading man sort, and Grady’s enough of a schlub to distance himself from that persona. Happily, however, Douglas doesn’t play up the comic possibilities to an extreme, and he ultimately makes Grady a nicely real and vivid character.

Ultimately, Wonder Boys offers a solid, gently comic exploration of some characters who aren’t quite certain what they want. By the end of the film, they may or may not achieve what they need, but the movie provides an interesting ride along the way.

One odd note: at the start of the movie, we find a disclaimed that reads “This film has been modified from its original version. It has been edited for content.” According to Paramount, a name in a list of people stated by James has been deleted.


The DVD Grades: Picture A- / Audio B+ / Bonus C

Wonder Boys appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Altogether the picture looked terrific, with very few problems on display.

Sharpness seemed virtually immaculate at all times. I never detected any soft or fuzzy images, as the movie consistently appeared crisp and detailed. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and only very minor print flaws cropped up during the film. I saw occasional instances of speckles, but more significant defects seemed absent.

Colors looked warm and natural. WB featured a fairly limited palette, with earthy tones dominant, and the DVD replicated these accurately, with no signs of noise, bleeding, or smearing. Black levels were quite deep and dark, and shadow detail looked appropriately opaque but never excessively thick or impenetrable. Ultimately, it’s another excellent transfer from Paramount.

Also solid was the Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack of Wonder Boys. Due to the nature of the material, it offered a fairly quiet soundfield, but this audio complemented the subject well. The forward channels dominated, and they provided a nice spectrum of sound. Some effects spread cleanly across the speakers, and music showed excellent stereo separation. When necessary, the audio blended together neatly, and the surrounds contributed good reinforcement of the forward channels. The rears mainly featured musical reinforcement of the front speakers, but they also added a nice level of atmosphere as a whole.

Audio quality appeared strong. Dialogue was natural and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects sounded crisp and accurate, and they could pack a solid punch when appropriate. Music worked especially well, as the combination of score and rock tunes seemed cleanly-replicated; the tracks were bright and vibrant, and they displayed positive bass response. All in all, the soundtrack to Wonder Boys was a modest affair, but it sounded good and fit the material.

Wonder Boys features a few supplements. I was somewhat surprised that it didn’t include an audio commentary, but I have a feeling Hanson doesn’t care for that format; LA Confidential also lacked one. Actually, the extras on Wonder Boys strongly resemble those on LA Confidential, as both discs offer the same kind of programs for the most part.

First up is Wonder Boys: A Look Between the Pages. This is a compendium of interview snippets that is much like similar segments found on many other Paramount DVDs. We hear from director Hanson plus actors Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, and Frances McDormand. During the 12-minute piece, we learn a little about the production, but for the most part the participants just tell us how great everyone was. Some of Paramount’s interview programs have been very informative, but too many suffer from the “glad-handing” syndrome apparent here. There’s too much happy talk and too few details. It’s worth a look but it didn’t add much to the experience.

More compelling were two other discussions with Hanson. The first is called Pittsburgh Interactive Location Map. As with a similar feature that examined the various landmarks - real and fictional - in LA Confidential, here Hanson covers six specific locations, and he also explains why Pittsburgh was used as the locale. He offers a lot of good notes about the symbolism of the areas, and he also provides a brief but solid history of the region. It’s a strong little piece.

Also useful is Singer/Songwriters of Wonder Boys, in which Hanson discusses the reasons why he used the various songs we hear in the film. There’s a general “Introduction” from Hanson, and then he covers five different tunes. I enjoyed his explanation of the symbolism intended by the songs, and it’s interesting to hear what he intended them to mean.

We also get a special section devoted to Bob Dylan as Hanson talks about his work in the movie, and we then find the music video for Dylan’s “Things Have Changed”. The latter is a pretty good clip as it integrates Dylan into the movie and also features a few new shots. Lastly, this area includes a “Soundtrack Album Song List” that provides exactly what the title states. The DVD then concludes with the film’s original theatrical trailer.

In Wonder Boys, director Curtis Hanson further distances himself from the thrillers through which he made his name. Here we find a quiet, character-oriented comedy that offers some interesting characters and solid acting. I can’t say that I was bowled over by WB, but I thought it was a satisfying and entertaining piece nonetheless. The DVD features very good picture and sound plus a smattering of extras. All in all, I thought Wonder Boys was worth a look.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2592 Stars Number of Votes: 27
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