After "LA Confidential", director Curtis Hanson was looking for a smaller, character-driven piece. He, as well as a top-notch cast, found a wonderful one in "Wonder Boys", a highly enjoyable character study that has some fantastic performances and very entertaining dialogue. Michael Douglas, in one of his best performances in quite a while, plays Grady Tripp, a college professor who is having one of his worst days in quite a while.
His day starts off by finding out that his wife has again left him. He's having an affair with the wife of his boss - the head of the English department, and she's also pregnant. Meanwhile, it's been years since he wrote his last successful novel, and his editor has come to collect the final product of his current attempt at work - which is, of course, still not done. That, and two students - James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a gifted writer and also a depressed liar as well as Hannah(Katie Holmes), a beautiful girl who has a crush on Grady, become a bigger part of his life. Falling apart, Grady loses himself in a haze of pot.
And, when it all is at its worst, Grady believes it to be the perfect time to turn his life around. Douglas is easily the glue that holds the film together. Where a character like this could have turned rather unlikable, we genuinely feel sorry for the troubles that fall into Grady's presence during the tale. He's easily hilarious at times, and serious at others.
The supporting cast is also excellent as well. Maguire plays a troubled character a bit too well, as his character remains a bit creepy through much of the early part of the film. Robert Downey, Jr. is also sharp and funny as Grady's editor and Katie Holmes turns in a fine, small performance as Hannah. In her second great role of the year, Frances McDormand("Almost Famous") also is great as the object of Grady's attraction. "Wonder Boys" really presents some fully-written, interesting characters who are real and very engaging. Combined with some smart, occasionally funny dialogue, and the end result is definitely a winner.
Note: Apparently, a name from the list of people that James talks about in a scene has been edited out for this home video release.
VIDEO: Although "Wonder Boys" isn't visually the most remarkable picture, the presentation here is still one of Paramount's better recent offerings. The 2.35:1 presentation is anamorphic, and generally looks very pleasing with few flaws. Although it's a little bit unusual that a dialogue-driven dramatic picture would be in 2.35:1 instead of 1.85:1, I often loved the way that cinematographer Dante Spinotti (director Michael Mann's usual cinematographer) filled the frame. Sharpness and detail are generally quite good, although the picture often has a bit of a "flat" feeling.
The only real problem that I noticed throughout the picture was the occasional small print flaw - a minor speckle or two that occasionally pop up throughout the picture. These were noticable, and a bit more than I'd expect from such a recent picture - but nothing that added up to much of a distraction. Generally, I didn't have any complaints with the presentation otherwise. Shimmering and pixelation do not appear throughout, and at its best, the picture looks crisp and natural.
The film has a bit of a subdued, drab color palette, but colors generally look natural with no problems. In fact, some of the scenes attain a rather cold, crisp beauty with Spinotti's wonderful compositions. A very good presentation from Paramount, but not quite great. The layer change is at 1:15:16
SOUND: "Wonder Boys" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.0, but it really doesn't have a great deal going on, in terms of sound. The film's light, warm score by Christopher Young generally comes from the front, but occasionally is re-inforced minimally by the surrounds. Otherwise, the surrounds really don't contribute much and mainly remain silent. Dialogue, and that's really the focus of the audio, remains clear and natural, with no problems. Not a terribly active audio presentation, but it's not because of missed opportunities, really - it's simply that the material doesn't call for much.
MENUS:: Although Paramount usually doesn't do much in the way of animated menus, they've put together an enjoyable animated main menu, as well as sub-menus that aren't animated, but still do a fine job at using images from the film as backgrounds.
Pittsburgh Interactive Location Map: Similar to the feature that was included with "LA Confidential", this feature offers a map of the locations included in "Wonder Boys". When you click on one of the locations listed, director Curtis Hanson offers interview footage and narration about how and why that location was chosen for a part in the movie. These clips are rather short, but it's a nice feature that I found interesting.
Cast and Crew Interviews: On many of their recent efforts, Paramount has put together a number of cast and crew interviews together into a featurette. They do it again here for "Wonder Boys" as Hanson and many of the actors are shown chatting about the story and their characters. As usual, these interviews are generally how much they all enjoyed working with one another and really don't provide much in the way of information about the making of the picture beyond that they all had a fine time. I'm not asking for people to say that they hated working with one another or entertaining gossip, but I would have liked to find out a bit more detailed info. Clips and behind-the-scenes footage is edited in-between some of the interviews, as well.
Songwriters Of "Wonder Boys": This is a rather interesting feature that takes viewers to a section with several additional features. Hanson provides commentary for 5 scenes where songs were chosen and why they fit for that particular scene, offers an interview on Bob Dylan's contribution to the picture and gives an intro to the section. Also included in this area is Bob Dylan's video for "Things Have Changed" and the soundtrack song list.
Also: The theatrical trailer in Dolby 2.0
Final Thoughts: "Wonder Boys" provides a great cast with wonderful material and the end result is a funny and dramatic picture that's very entertaining. Although its unfortunate that Hanson seems to not be too into contributing an audio commentary , Paramount has brought together a small, well-produced group of extras and enjoyable audio/video quality for the main presentation. It's too bad that audiences generally stayed away from the picture, but hopefully, it can finally find a strong audience on video. Highly recommended.