MARCH 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 3


Wonder Boys

The Whole Nine Yards: Cookie-cutter crime caper boasts quality acting, even from Willis, and an intricate plot.

Holy Smoke: Unanswerable questions turn beautiful journey into ridiculous jaunt


Short Takes
Grading from A-F

Could have benefited from some ruthless film editing. Then again, having it run even longer than three hours could have made for a more fulfilling experience. Anderson could have further explored the religious aspects of the film (of which there are legion) and made more inherent (without a voice-over) the running theme that in life, there are no coincidences and that as uncanny as it may seem, "these things happen." [More]

This film definitely needed to do something to help it from its tired, slow moving agenda. I found myself as disconnected from Tom Ripley at the end as I did at the beginning. And I barely cared whether he killed anyone else or was killed himself. As long as I didn't have to watch anymore, I was ready to applaud for the one who came out on top. [More]

- Renaissance Online staff

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Wonder Boys - Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire Quite a Tripp
Writer Grady Tripp struggles for perspective in a wonderful depiction of life and its disappointments

Rating: B+

Starring Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey, Jr., Katie Holmes, Written by Steve Kloves from the novel by Michael Chabon. Directed by Curtis Hanson. Rated R. Running Time: 112m.

Also directed by Curtis Hanson.

L.A. Confidential (1997)
Winner: 1998 Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay.

Buy It today


Wonder Boys is a winning episodic film of middle-aged baby boomer angst that expertly balances a quirky story line. Michael Douglas (Basic Instinct, Disclosure) plays Grady Tripp, a Pittsburgh college professor who, in the middle of a mess of a novel he is trying to finish (2000 pages and counting) must deal with significant life changes. He has a lot of burdens in his life. He has to watch a wunderkind student James Leer (Tobey Maguire) carefully. Leer is a chameleon with suicidal thoughts who constantly hides who he is, but possesses enormous writing talent. At the same time, Douglas discovers that his wife has left him and that he has gotten the chancellor of the school (Frances McDormand), wife of his boss, pregnant. Finally, his editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) is expecting a finished manuscript to bolster his flagging career. The walls are closing in: a defining moment in life.

The story covers two pivotal days in the life of Grady Tripp and it is a funny, poignant, and endearing ride. Wonder Boys shoots off in unexpected directions but manages to maintain a coherent story line. The twists are unexpected but don't come across as cruel or loopy. I haven't seen a movie that managed to hold together such disparate plot points as: a dead dog in the trunk of a car, shot twice in the chest; the theft of an authentic Marilyn Monroe coat; even an out of the blue hilarious scene where what appears to be a raving maniac jumping on Douglas' car has a purpose in the story.

Curtis Hanson's follow up effort to L.A. Confidential comes across as an intensely personal story. In L.A. Confidential Hanson created a near perfect period piece with detail that rang true from the look to the dialogue. He achieves a similar effect with Wonder Boys, using the same cinematographer on Confidential, Dante Spinotti, creating a drab college university town in winter where politics, egos and the latest laurels are the yardsticks of achievement. Yet, smartly, the story avoids falling into conventional stereotypes.

The juggling of a myriad of subplots is truly amazing. This movie easily could have been an incoherent mishmash of disconnected scenes, but the core of Douglas' character resolving his multiple predicaments carries it through to the end. And the humor is in small telling moments, such as when a dog starts sniffing around the trunk of Douglas' car, sensing the poor dead pooch inside, to a greenbean cop who forgets to put the parking brake on his cruiser when he stops to question Douglas.

  Frances McDormand
CHEATIN' HEART Frances McDormand stars as a cheating wife who ends up pregnant.

This is one of the best cast movies in quite some time. Douglas is perfect as a rumpled sardonic professor struggling with the quiet despair of the world pressing in on him. This is easily his best pure acting role in many years. McDormand (Fargo) is also very effective as the woman he has gotten pregnant. Robert Downey, Jr., Richard Thomas, and Rip Torn play key small roles perfectly.

The writing is sharp and incisive. It doesn't become a cloying showcase of the young hot buck writer and the jealous aging has-been. Steve Kloves, who wrote and directed both The Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone has a great sense for dialogue that reveals the complexities of the characters.

Wonder Boys is not a story of new beginnings so much but rather the struggle of changing your life when it is more than half over, while the previous baggage comes along for the ride. All the characters in this story struggle with disappointments and unrealized dreams. Ultimately, the message is about keeping perspective in one's life. This movie is the embodiment of the John Lennon quote: "Life is what happens to us while we're making plans."

TIM CLIFTON is Renaissance Online Magazine's staff movie reviewer.

PICTURES copyright © 2000 Paramount Pictures.

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