- Wonder Boys (2000) movie review: Miscast actors in both lead and supporting roles, and director Curtis Hanson’s heavy-handed handling of the material bring down this otherwise technically accomplished would-be screwball comedy.
- Wonder Boys won the Best Original Song Academy Award for Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed.” In addition, it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Steve Kloves) and Best Film Editing (Dede Allen).
Wonder Boys movie review: Mostly well-regarded talent fail to replicate the wit & humor of classic screwball comedies
The three lead characters in director Curtis Hanson and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Steve Kloves’ Wonder Boys – adapted from Michael Chabon’s 1995 Pittsburgh-set novel – are the following:
- An English professor and pothead (Michael Douglas) with so little sense of ethics that, even though he has been having an affair with the wife (Frances McDormand) of his superior (Richard Thomas), he has the gall to become upset when his wife leaves him.
- 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 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 missing is the wit credited to the likes of Preston Sturges, Dudley Nichols, Viña Delmar, and Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.
And expert light comedians like Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, William Powell, and, in his less effusive moments, Cary Grant. Not to mention scene-stealers like Eric Blore, Donald Meek, Charles Coburn, Spring Byington.
Everyone tries too hard – and it shows
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 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.
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 quite 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 Academy Award 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 Oscar 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 near a light comedy.
The one exception in this cheerless ensemble is Michael Cavadias as Miss Antonia Sloviak, a transvestite whose moment of truth is the highlight of the film. Besides, 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)
Director: Curtis Hanson.
Screenplay: Steve Kloves.
From Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel.
Cast: Michael Douglas. Tobey Maguire. Frances McDormand. Robert Downey Jr. Katie Holmes. Rip Torn. Richard Thomas. Michael Cavadias. George Grizzard. Richard Knox. Jane Adams. Alan Tudyk. Philip Bosco. Kelly Bishop. Rob McElhenney.
“Wonder Boys Movie (2000) Review” notes
Alan Ladd death: Suicide or accident?
In theaters, the list included 1940s Paramount star Alan Ladd (This Gun for Hire, Shane), who died 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” endnotes
Tobey Maguire, Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr. Wonder Boys movie images: Paramount Pictures.
“Wonder Boys Movie: Cast + Direction Cripple Would-Be Screwball Comedy” last updated in September 2021.