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Wednesday May 22nd 2024

Wonder Boys | 2000

Wonder Boys location: Modern Cafe, Western Avenue, North Side, Pittsburgh
Wonder Boys location: Grady Tripp tries to rescue the tired and emotional Leer at the ‘Hi-Hat Club’: Modern Cafe, Western Avenue, North Side, Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, squeezed into a triangle at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers, has more bridges than any other US city, and they provide a constant motif throughout the film – keep an eye open for the number of bridge images of bridges scattered throughout the background of the film.

After the pyrotechnics of LA Confidential, it seems audiences weren’t ready for Curtis Hanson’s darkly comic low-key film of the Michael Chabon novel, set in the literary circles of Pittsburgh.

There’s a change of image, too, for Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, the rumpled, unshaven English lecturer, feted for his first novel but struggling with that difficult second book.

The academic setting is Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, where Tripp teaches English to a cynical class in Baker Hall, Frew Street, on the Forbes Avenue campus.

Alongside Baker Hall stands the College of Fine Arts Building, which houses the Kresge Theater, the venue for the WordFest literary festival at the heart of the story. The university’s nearby Mellon Institute on Fifth Avenue, by the way, was used as ‘Gotham City Hall’ in The Dark Knight Rises.

Arriving in town for WordFest, editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr) and his glamorous but towering crossdressed companion are greeted by Tripp as they arrive at Pittsburgh International Airport (where Matt Damon and Ben Affleck hatched their plan to get back to Heaven in Kevin Smith’s Dogma).

Tripp lives in a red-brick Colonial Revival house in the residential district of Friendship, a few miles northeast of downtown, at 359 South Atlantic Avenue.

Apart from the inability to complete his book, Tripp’s life is complicated by his affair with the university chancellor, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), who happens to be married to the head of the English department.

The Gaskell ’s home, where Tripp’s problems multiply after his brilliant but wayward student James Leer (Tobey Maguire) not only nicks a piece of priceless Hollywood memorabilia (Marilyn Monroe’s wedding jacket), but also shoots the blind family dog, is a house called Eastover on the campus of private school Shady Side Academy, Fox Chapel Road in the Fox Chapel district, north of the Allegheny River.

The ‘Hi-Hat Club’, to which Grady heads to rescue the tired and emotional Leer from the attentions of Crabtree, is a mix of two locations. The bar interior is the Modern Cafe at 862 Western Avenue, on the North Side. Despite the name, the Modern has been serving shots and beer on since 1933. It was closed for over a year after a fire in 2009, but reopened in 2010.

The exterior, where Tripp and his party are accosted by the seemingly bonkers Vernon Hardapple (Richard Knox), sets the club in the Hill District, east of downtown, regarded as the city’s African-American cultural heart. The building, dressed up with neon signage, stood on Wylie Avenue at the northeast corner of Perry Street, but it’s since been demolished.

Another lost location is the Howard Johnson's, where Tripp realises that everything Leer has told him was fabrication, and calls the boy’s parents. It stood at 4309 Route 51 North in Belle Vernon, and it too was about to be closed and torn down.

The house of James Leer’s parents is supposed to be in extremely posh Sewickly Heights, about 12 miles northwest of the city. It’s actually 79 Woodland Road, on the campus of Chatham College in Squirrel Hill North, east of downtown.

Even further northwest (about 25 miles from Pittsburgh proper), Tripp visits the home of his in-laws in the town of Beaver on the Ohio River. The house, which Leer manages to access through the dogflap, is 145 Wayne Street, on the corner of Bank Street, opposite Wayne Park.

Also on the Ohio River, just east of Beaver is the town of Rochester. It’s here that Tripp discovers his repossessed car outside ‘Kravnik's Sporting Goods’, which was Beaver Valley Bowl, 25 New York Avenue at Water Street, beneath the Monaca Bridge. A one-time brewery, the bowling alley was previously featured in the Farrelly brothersKingpin.