- Wonder Boys (2000) movie review: Miscast actors in both lead and supporting roles – among them Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, and Robert Downey Jr. – and director Curtis Hanson’s graceless handling of the material bring down this otherwise technically accomplished would-be screwball comedy.
- Wonder Boys movie synopsis: While suffering from writer’s block, a university professor (Michael Douglas) befriends a gifted but odd student (Tobey Maguire), while trying to cope with his increasingly more complex personal and professional tribulations.
- Wonder Boys won one Academy Award: Best Original Song (Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed”). It received two additional nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay (Steve Kloves) and Best Film Editing (Dede Allen).
Wonder Boys (2000) movie review: Director Curtis Hanson, adapter Steve Kloves, and a mostly ‘name’ cast fail to replicate the humor and wit of Old Hollywood’s screwball comedies
In director Curtis Hanson and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steve Kloves’ big-screen version of Michael Chabon’s 1995 Pittsburgh-set novel Wonder Boys, the three lead characters are the following:
- An English professor and pothead (Michael Douglas) with so little sense of ethics that he has the gall to feel victimized when his wife leaves him, even though he has been having an affair with the wife (Frances McDormand) of his superior (Richard Thomas).
- A brilliant young writer (Tobey Maguire) who happens to be a pathological liar obsessed with celebrity suicides.
- A flamboyant bisexual literary editor (Robert Downey Jr.) who can’t tell the difference between a ten-foot-tall transvestite (Michael Cavadias) and a woman.
Add to the above a pompous bestselling author (Rip Torn), an irascible “car robber” (Richard Knox) and his ditzy girlfriend (Jane Adams), a ferocious blind dog, and Marilyn Monroe’s worn-out jacket, and we have several good ingredients for an amusing screwball comedy.
The trouble is that Gregory La Cava’s, Leo McCarey’s, and Howard Hawks’ touch is nowhere to be found in Wonder Boys. Also absent is the wit credited to the likes of Preston Sturges, Dudley Nichols, Viña Delmar, and the duo of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.
Expert light comedians such as Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, William Powell, and, in his less effusive moments, Cary Grant are nowhere in sight. The same goes for scene-stealers along the lines of Eric Blore, Donald Meek, Charles Coburn, and Spring Byington.
Everyone tries too hard
After trying his hand at film noir with the middling (yet critical favorite) L.A. Confidential, which earned him an Oscar nomination, Curtis Hanson opted to tackle that other Old Hollywood genre in Wonder Boys. As stated above, the basic ingredients – weird characters, weirder situations, capable behind-the-scenes talent – are mostly there, but missing is the spirit of the best sophisticated comedies of decades past.
Just like what’s seen in another throwback to the screwball comedy genre, Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 Barbra Streisand-Ryan O’Neal blockbuster What’s Up Doc?, everyone in Wonder Boys tries much too hard to be quirky and funny. And it shows.
Besides, one can almost see Hanson’s directorial hand moving actors and props in every comedy sequence. His grip is just as noticeable in the film’s (unscrewballish) dramatic moments.
Sure, they also tried extremely hard back in the 1930s and early 1940s, but the effort put into My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Midnight, and The Lady Eve is for the most part invisible on screen. That’s why these comedies worked – and still do. And that’s why Wonder Boys doesn’t click despite its name cast and first-rate production values.
Cary Grant or William Powell – or even John Barrymore (check out Twentieth Century and Midnight) – could have turned Michael Douglas’ unsympathetic pothead into a humorous (hilarious?) character. But Douglas, of course, isn’t Grant, Powell, or Barrymore. The Best Actor Oscar winner (Wall Street, 1987) hits his marks, delivers his lines, and that’s it.
Compounding matters, the Wonder Boys star gets little help from his fellow cast members. From a pre-Spider-Man Tobey Maguire to Best Actress winner Frances McDormand (Fargo, 1996), they all hit their marks and deliver their lines like consummate professionals – of the kind that should never have been allowed on the set of a breezy comedy.
The one exception in this cheerless ensemble is Michael Cavadias as Miss Antonia Sloviak, whose moment of truth is the highlight of the film. Moreover, Miss Antonia earns points for being Wonder Boys’ sole character to mourn the blind dog’s untimely – and unfunny, cruel – death.
In all, Wonder Boys works as a blueprint for what it could have been: A peculiarly poignant madcap comedy. So, how about an actually funny remake in a decade or so?
Wonder Boys (2000) cast & crew
Director: Curtis Hanson.
Screenplay: Steve Kloves.
From Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel.
Michael Douglas … Grady Tripp
Tobey Maguire … James Leer
Frances McDormand … Sara Gaskell
Robert Downey Jr. … Terry Crabtree
Katie Holmes … Hannah Green
Rip Torn … Quentin “Q” Morewood
Richard Knox … Vernon Hardapple
Jane Adams … Oola
Michael Cavadias … Miss Antonia Sloviak
Richard Thomas … Walter Gaskell
Alan Tudyk … Traxler
Philip Bosco … Emily’s Father
George Grizzard … Fred Leer
Kelly Bishop … Amanda Leer
James Ellroy … WordFest Guest
Rob McElhenney … Student
According to online sources, L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy has a brief cameo in the WordFest sequence.
Cinematography: Dante Spinotti.
Film Editing: Dede Allen.
Music: Christopher Young.
Producers: Scott Rudin & Curtis Hanson.
Production Design: Jeannine Claudia Oppewall.
Costume Design: Beatrix Aruna Pasztor.
Production Companies: Mutual Film Company | Paramount Pictures.
Distributor: Paramount Pictures.
Running Time: 112 min.
Country: United States.
“Wonder Boys (2000): Michael Douglas + Tobey Maguire” notes
Alan Ladd death: Suicide or accident?
In theaters, the list included 1940s Paramount star Alan Ladd (This Gun for Hire, Shane), who died at age 50 after mixing alcohol and sedatives in January 1964. (In November 1962, there had also been a near-fatal self-inflicted gun wound.)
Some have asserted that Ladd’s death was indeed a suicide, but the issue has never been settled. Following complaints from Ladd’s family, for the home video release Paramount reportedly removed the actor’s name from Maguire’s list.
Wonder Boys movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
Tobey Maguire, Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr. Wonder Boys movie images: Paramount Pictures.
“Wonder Boys (2000): Michael Douglas + Tobey Maguire” last updated in September 2023.