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Wonder Boys is a 2000 feature film based on the 1995 novel of the same title by Michael Chabon. Directed by Curtis Hanson, it stars Michael Douglas as professor Grady Tripp, a novelist who teaches creative writing at an unnamed Pittsburghmarker university. He has been unable to finish his second novel, his young wife has left him, and he is sleeping with his boss’s wife (Frances McDormand), who is also the Chancellor of the university. Grady's editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town to take a look at the book and becomes interested in a book that a student (Tobey Maguire) from Grady's creative writing class has just completed.

Wonder Boys was filmed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniamarker, including locations at Carnegie Mellon Universitymarker, Chatham Universitymarker, and Shady Side Academymarker. Other Pennsylvania locations included Beavermarker, Rochestermarker and Rostraver Townshipmarker. The film reunited Katie Holmes and Maguire, who had appeared together three years earlier in The Ice Storm.

After Wonder Boys failed at the box office, there was a second attempt to find an audience with a new marketing campaign and a November 8, 2000, re-release, which was also a financial disappointment.

Plot summary

Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is a novelist who teaches creative writing at an unnamed Pittsburghmarker university (the movie was shot chiefly in and around Carnegie Mellon Universitymarker). He is having an affair with the university chancellor, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), whose husband, Walter, is the chairman of the English department and thus Grady's boss. Grady's third wife, Emily, has just left him, and he has failed to repeat the grand success of his first novel, published years earlier. He continues to labor on a second novel, but the more he tries to finish it the less able he finds himself to invent a satisfactory ending - the book runs to over two and a half thousand pages and is still far from finished. He spends his free time smoking marijuana.

His students include James Leer (Tobey Maguire) and Hannah Green (Katie Holmes). Hannah and James are friends and both very good writers. Hannah, who rents a room in Tripp's large house, is attracted to Tripp, but he does not reciprocate. James is enigmatic, quiet, dark and enjoys writing fiction more than he first lets on.

During a party at the Gaskells' house, Sara reveals to Grady that she is pregnant with his child. Grady finds James standing outside holding what he claims to be a replica gun, won by his mother at a fairground during her schooldays. However, the gun turns out to be very real, as James shoots the Gaskells' dog when he finds it attacking Grady. James also steals a very valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia from the house. Grady is unable to tell Sara of this incident as she is pressuring him to choose between her and Emily. As a result, Grady is forced to keep the dead dog in the trunk of his car for most of the weekend. He also allows James to follow him around, fearing that he may be depressed or even suicidal. Gradually he realizes that much of what James tells him is untrue, and is seemigly designed to elicit Grady's sympathy.

Meanwhile, Grady's editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), has flown into town on the pretense of attending the university's annual WordFest, a literary event for aspiring authors. In reality, Crabtree is there to see if Tripp has written anything worth publishing, as both men's careers depend on Grady's book. Terry arrives with a transvestite whom he met on the flight, called Antonia Sloviak (Michael Cavadias). The pair apparently become intimate in a bedroom at the Gaskells' party, but immediately afterwards Terry meets, and becomes infatuated with, James Leer, and Sloviak is unceremoniously sent home. After a night on the town, Crabtree and James semi-consciously flirt throughout the night, which eventually leads up to the two end up spending an awkwardly intimate night together in one of Grady's spare rooms.

Tired and confused, Grady phones Walter Gaskell (Richard Thomas) and reveals to him that he is in love with Walter's wife. Meanwhile, Walter has also made the connection between the disappearance of Marilyn Monroe's jacket and James Leer. The following morning a policeman arrives with Sara to escort James to the Chancellor's office to discuss the ramifications of his actions. The jacket is still in Grady's car, which has conspicuously gone missing. This car had been given to him by a friend as payment for a loan, and over the weekend Grady has come to suspect that the car was stolen. Over the course of his travel around town, Grady has been repeatedly accosted by a man claiming to be the car's real owner. He eventually tracks the car down, but in a dispute over its ownership the majority of his manuscript blows out of the car and is lost. The car's owner gives him a ride to the university with his wife, Oola, in the passenger seat, wearing the stolen jacket.

Remembering James Leer's distress at how lonely the jacket looked in its own special closet, Grady finally sees that making things right involves having to make choices. Grady tells Oola the story behind the jacket and allows her to leave with it. Worried that Grady's choice comes at the expense of damaging James Leer's future, Crabtree convinces Walter not to press charges by agreeing to publish his book, "a critical exploration of the union of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe and its function in American mythopoetics", tentatively titled The Last American Marriage.

The movie ends with Grady recounting the eventual fate of the main characters - Hannah graduates and becomes a magazine editor; James wasn't expelled, but drops out anyway and moves to New York with Crabtree to rework his novel for publication; and Crabtree himself "goes right on being Crabtree." Grady finishes typing his new novel (now using a computer rather than a typewriter), then watches Sara and their child arriving home before turning back to the computer and clicking "Save."

Cast and characters


After L.A. Confidential, Curtis Hanson was working on a screenplay of his own and reading other scripts with a keen interest for his next film. Actress Elizabeth McGovern advised Hanson to work with screenwriter Steve Kloves. When he was given the writer's script for Wonder Boys and was told that Michael Douglas was interested in starring, he "fell in love with these characters - and they made me laugh". Hanson also identified with Grady Tripp and the "thing building up inside him: frustration, hunger, yearning, et cetera".


Kloves, best known for writing and directing The Fabulous Baker Boys, returned to the film business after a self-imposed seven-year retirement to adapt Michael Chabon's novel for the money and because he identified with Grady. He was originally going to direct the film as well but bowed out and Hanson came on board. Kloves had never adapted a novel before but was encouraged by Chabon, to make the material his own. This included changing Grady's Jewish in-laws to gentiles. Additional changes were made once Hanson came on board. For example, he felt that James Leer would be a fan of Douglas Sirk's films as opposed to Frank Capra as he is in the novel.


Paramount Pictures was not interested in making a quirky, character-driven comedy/drama until Douglas agreed to work well below his usual large fee. The actor gained 25 pounds for the film by eating pizza, subs and drinking a lot of beer. One of the challenges for Hanson was to take a plot that, as he put it, "is meandering and, apparently, sort of aimless", and a character that "does things that even he doesn't really know why he's doing them", and try to create a "feeling of focus" to keep the audience interested. Another challenge the director faced was working in actual locations in very cold weather that was constantly changing.

Robert Downey Jr. was on probation during the winter of 1999 when Hanson considered him for a role in Wonder Boys. Hanson was cautious because of the actor's drug history and concerned because it would be a tough film shot in sequence in Pittsburgh in the winter. Downey flew to Pittsburgh and had a long dinner conversation with Hanson where they addressed his problems. The actor demonstrated a commitment to the project and Hanson hired him. Reportedly, Downey acted in a professional manner for the entire four-and-a-half month shoot but after it ended, he returned to Los Angelesmarker and violated his parole.

Principal photography

Paramount suggested shooting Wonder Boys in Toronto or New York City but after reading the book, Hanson realized how important Pittsburgh was to the story, that it was a "wonder boy", much like the film's main protagonist Grady Tripp, it's a city that had this glorious past of wealth and success that ended. And then it had to deal with figuring out what's next. What happens after triumph?" Wonder Boys was filmed in Pittsburgh, including locations at Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham College, and Shady Side Academy. Other Pennsylvania locations included Beaver, Rochester, and Rostraver Township. Hanson felt that Pittsburgh was "right, emotionally and thematically" for the film. The city was experiencing a mild winter during the film's shoot and they had to use a lot of artificial snow.

Hanson contacted Dante Spinotti about working on the film in November 1998. They had worked previously together on L.A. Confidential. Spinotti had six weeks of pre-production, which he used to perform a variety of tests and shoot a number of important background plates for several scenes that take place at night, in cars. He knew that these scenes included some very critical acting and suggested using the green screen process for greater control. During pre-production, Hanson and Spinotti used the Kodak Pre View System to storyboard complicated sequences by altering digital still images in a way that simulated the imaging characteristics of camera films. Hanson suggested Spinotti see The Celebration for its technique of keeping the camera extremely close to the actors and carrying deep focus from one actor to the other. Spinotti suggested using a hand-held camera so that the film would not look static. On the first day of shooting, they incorporated some hand-held shots. Hanson liked the results and they used the technique extensively for the rest of the shoot.


Hanson had been a fan of Bob Dylan's music since childhood and a great admirer of his soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Dylan admired Hanson's previous film, L.A. Confidential and after much convincing, screened 90 minutes of rough footage from Wonder Boys. Hanson picked Dylan because, as he said, "Who knows more about being a Wonder Boy and the trap it can be, about the expectations and the fear of repeating yourself?"

In addition to Dylan, Hanson built the score around nine singer-songwriters including Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. The entire soundtrack is integrated into the film with Hanson playing some of the songs for the actors on the Pittsburgh set to convey a scene's "aural texture", as he put it. The soundtrack features several songs by Bob Dylan, including one new composition, "Things Have Changed". Hanson also created a music video for the song, filming new footage of Bob Dylan on the film's various locations and editing it with footage used in Wonder Boys as if Dylan were actually in the film. According to Hanson, "Every song reflects the movie's themes of searching for past promise, future success and a sense of purpose".

Track listing

  1. Bob Dylan - "Things Have Changed" 5:10
  2. Buffalo Springfield - "A Child's Claim to Fame" 2:12
  3. Tom Rush - "No Regrets" 3:52
  4. Neil Young - "Old Man" 3:23
  5. Bob Dylan - "Shooting Star" 3:09
  6. Tim Hardin - "Reason to Believe" 2:00
  7. Little Willie John - "Need Your Love So Bad" 2:17
  8. Bob Dylan - "Not Dark Yet" 6:30
  9. Clarence Carter - "Slip Away" 2:32
  10. Leonard Cohen - "Waiting for the Miracle" 7:43
  11. Bob Dylan - "Buckets of Rain" 3:23
  12. John Lennon - "Watching the Wheels" 3:32
  13. Van Morrison - "Philosophers Stone" 6:03


Box office

In its opening weekend, Wonder Boys grossed a total of USD $5.8 million in 1,253 theaters. It went on to gross a total of $33.4 million worldwide.


Wonder Boys currently holds an 83 percent "fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 73 metascore at Metacritic. Roger Ebert, a film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, praised Wonder Boys as "the most accurate movie about campus life that I can remember. It is accurate, not because it captures intellectual debate or campus politics, but because it knows two things: (1) Students come and go, but the faculty actually lives there, and (2) many faculty members stay stuck in graduate-student mode for decades". Emanuel Levy of Variety wrote, "The movie's frivolous touches and eccentric details emphasize its dry, measured wit and the power of comedy to underscore serious ideas. Massively inventive, Wonder Boys is spiked with fresh, perverse humor that flows naturally from the straight-faced playing". A.O. Scott from The New York Times wrote, "The problem is that everyone involved seems to have agreed that it was a great idea for a movie and pretty much left it at that". In his review for Time, Richard Corliss wrote, "Wonder Boys reminds us of a distant age (the '70s) when bad movies were better: not stupid teen romps but sad, off-kilter studies of adults adrift. It is a rare current example of that endangered species, the honorable failure". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "C+" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Curtis Hanson may have wanted to make a movie that gleamed with humanity as much as L.A. Confidential burned with malevolence, but he's so intent on getting us to like his characters that he didn't give them enough juice". Looking back in his review, critic Andrew O'Hehir felt that Hanson, "and cinematographer Dante Spinotti capture both Pittsburgh (one of the most serendipitously beautiful American cities) and the netherworld of boho academia with brilliant precision. If you went to a liberal-arts college anywhere in the United States, then the way Grady's ramshackle house looks in the wake of Crabs' enormous all-night party should conjure up vivid sense-memories".


Original theatrical poster
critics blamed Paramount's initial ad campaign for the film not finding a mainstream audience. The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern praised Douglas' work in the movie, but criticized the movie poster, which featured a headshot of Douglas: "a raffishly eccentric role, and he's never been so appealing. (Don't be put off by the movie's cryptic poster, which makes him look like Michael J. Pollard.)" The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan also slammed the poster: "The film's ad poster brings Elmer Fudd to mind." Hanson said that the poster made Douglas look "like he was trying to be Robin Williams". In an interview with Amy Taubin, Hanson said, "The very things that made Michael and I want to do the movie so badly were the reasons it was so tricky to market. Since films go out on so many screens at once, there's a need for instant appeal. But Wonder Boys isn't easily reducible to a single image or a catchy ad line". Hanson felt that the studio played it safe with the original ad campaign. They also released it a week after the Academy Award nominations were announced and the studio spent more money promoting the films of theirs that were nominated and not enough on Wonder Boys. The studio pulled the film out of theaters and quickly canceled the video release. Hanson and the film's producer Scott Rudin lobbied to have it re-released. They designed a new campaign including posters and a trailer for the re-release that emphasized the ensemble cast.


Wonder Boys was nominated for four Golden Globes: Best Picture, Drama, Best Actor, Drama for Michael Douglas, Best Screenplay and Best Original Song for "Things Have Changed" by Bob Dylan. Dylan won in his category. Wonder Boys was nominated for three Academy Awards - Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Song and Dede Allen for Best Film Editing. Dylan won for Best Song. The film was also nominated for two BAFTAs - Best Screenplay and Douglas for Best Actor in a Leading Role. It did not win in either category. Dylan's song was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media but lost out to "When She Loved Me" from Toy Story 2, written by Randy Newman.

The Boston Society of Film Critics voted Frances McDormand as Best Supporting Actress and Steve Kloves for Best Screenplay. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association voted Douglas for Best Actor and McDormand for Best Supporting Actress.


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