Wonder Boys

The Skinny

A middle-aged college professor tries to get his life back on track

The Bottom Line

Curtis Hanson does it again!

The Full Review

It’s been more than two years since Curtis Hanson brought Jack Vinsennes and company to life in the superbly directed film noir L.A. Confidential. If there was any doubt about Hanson’s skill as a director, it was quickly put to rest when Kim Basinger, previously regarded only for her physical talents, walked away with a 1998 best supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal of Lynn Bracken. Now, with his second feature film release, Wonder Boys, Hanson is hoping to avoid the dreaded sophomore jinx.

The film stars Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone, Wall Street, The Game) as Grady Tripp, a creative writing professor at a Pittsburgh liberal arts college, who has been unable to complete the follow-up to his best-selling novel published seven years earlier. The story of Wonder Boys, which essentially takes place over the course of a single long weekend, begins with Grady learning that his wife, having become fed up with being the subject of Grady’s neglect, has left him. Grady is unsettled by this turn of events, not because he has lost his wife, but rather because it now means he no longer has an excuse to keep from committing himself to the women he truly loves, Sara Gaskell, played by Frances McDormand (Fargo, Lone Star, Raising Arizona). As it turns out, Sara is not only the chancellor of the school at which Grady teaches, but she is also the wife of the head of the school’s English Department, Grady’s boss.

Through the occurrence of an unusual set of events, Grady, who can barely manage his own life, ironically finds himself in the position of acting as a temporary guardian to one of his troubled yet highly gifted students, James Leer, played by Tobey McGuire (The Cider House Rules, Pleasantville, The Ice Storm). To make matters worse, Grady suddenly finds himself being hounded by both his desperate publisher, Terry Crabtree, played by Robert Downey Jr (Two Girls and A Guy, Chaplin, Weird Science), and by a lovesick student of his, Hannah Green, played by Katie Holmes (The Ice Storm, GO, Dawson’s Creek).

For the most part, Steve Kloves’ screenplay, adapted from the 1995 novel Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, is terrific. The main characters are richly developed and Kloves is able to create a truly engaging film by weaving together several mini stories that become tightly intertwined but never tangled. The film is well cast and equally well acted, with Michael Douglas as the stand out, giving a thoroughly convincing performance in his role as the wayward academic.

While Wonder Boys begins to meander just a bit as the film goes on, and Kloves could have taken a bit more risk with the film’s conclusion, all in all Hanson succeeds in delivering the most un-Hollywood of Hollywood films.

By: Craig Ettinger


Katie Holmes
Michael Douglas excels in an uncharacteristic role
Terrific soundtrack featuring music from singer/songwriters: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Van Morrison and Neil Young


A fairly predictable ending
If Bill Clinton – who only had his position as U.S. President at risk – couldn’t resist a pig like Monica Lewinsky, how are we supposed to believe that a confused college professor could so easily resist the advances of his adorable “girl-next-door” student?