In these days of too many movies, it’s rare for any of them to get a second chance at life. Wonder Boys, Curtis Hanson’s bedraggled screwball comedy starring Michael Douglas as a 50-year-old novelist going through a long overdue coming-of-age, was originally released last February. Although it received enthusiastic reviews, it never connected with its potential audience. Admitting that the original ad campaign failed to capture the film’s unique flavor, Paramount decided to try again—and just in time for Oscar consideration.
“The very things that made Michael and I want to do the movie so badly were the reasons it was so tricky to market,” says Hanson, a soft-spoken man who’s as endearingly scruffy as Wonder Boys‘ protagonist. “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.” In the original campaign, Hanson explains, Paramount retreated to what felt safe, which was a headshot of Douglas. The posters and the trailer for the rerelease highlight the ensemble cast—Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, and Robert Downey Jr.—suggesting that this is not a film just for boomers, but for a younger audience as well.
Douglas owned the rights to the Michael Chabon novel on which Wonder Boys is based, and he asked Hanson to get involved; after directing the dark policier L.A. Confidential, Hanson wanted to do a comedy. Given the differences in tone, Hanson was surprised to find, midway through shooting, he felt connected to both films in fundamentally the same way. “I was invested in a group of characters, and once again, it consisted of three men and a woman all trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Whether they were part of the world of the police or of the literary world was less significant than the characters themselves.”
What appealed to Hanson in the novel was, as he puts it, an attitude of open-heartedness and an absence of moralizing: “Whether it’s pot smoking, or adultery, or shooting a dog, it’s all just human activity.” Hanson told his cinematographer Dante Spinotti that the movie needed to have a casual feel: “You find it in Jean Renoir or Hal Ashby.” He also needed Douglas to approach his role with a complete lack of movie-star vanity. “I needed him to embrace the character rather than play him. Often when actors play a part that’s unattractive in one way or another, they’ll wink at the audience by exaggerating certain things to show that they’re not really that way. Michael doesn’t do that here, and what’s so gratifying is that even though he looks like shit, so many people find him more appealing than they ever did before. In this part Michael has finally liberated himself from his father’s shadow, because he does something that he can do uniquely well. There’s a vulnerability and fear that’s just very naked and real.”