An Open Book

Michael Douglas makes quiet desperation palpable as a writer and college professor going to pot in the surprising, very human comedy 'Wonder Boys.'

February 25, 2000|By ANN HORNADAY | ANN HORNADAY,SUN FILM CRITIC

An air of rumpled desperation suffuses "Wonder Boys," as if human emotion were muffled under cottony layers of denial and angst, flailing to get out.

A story of midlife crisis, creative paralysis and the liberating power of conscious choice, "Wonder Boys" exists in that mid-range between an arty small film and a star-driven Hollywood vehicle.

It's that rare, thoroughly satisfying comedy that modestly reaches toward mature filmgoers, counting on their wry recognition of its chastened tone and graying pop references (Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young), even as it indulges in outrageous flights of adolescent whimsy.

Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, an English professor at a small college in Pittsburgh whose first novel was a hit seven years ago and whose second book is a work-in-progress. As "Wonder Boys" opens, Grady is on page 2,611. You might say he has closure issues.

Those issues will come to a head on one particular weekend, during which Tripp must endure a series of indignities. For starters, he's just been left by the latest in a string of young wives, and there's a comely student (Katie Holmes) who can't wait to come to his aid and comfort. The campus is celebrating "Wordfest," a book festival attended by Grady's hungry editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), who has brought along an escort of indeterminate sexuality, and Tripp's star student James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is mooning around spookily, providing Grady with ample reminder of his own faded glory as a bright young novelist. And this entire crew is to make an appearance at the home of the school chancellor (Frances McDormand) and her priggish husband (Richard Thomas).

From there, things only get weirder. To make matters worse for Grady, he's almost out of marijuana -- a bag of Northern California's finest that he keeps stashed in his car glove box and of which he partakes early and often.

No more clues need be given to this jocular film, which is as surprising in its delicate tone of resignation as in its slightly overblown plot. One look at Douglas' paunchy jowls tells you that this is a man teetering on the edge of a long slide down. Thanks to Hanson's assured grasp of the reins, that slide takes dips and turns where the audience least expects them, and even at its most preposterous -- and things do get way out of hand -- the action never insults.

"Wonder Boys" owes quite a bit to an understated, admirably un-vain performance from Douglas, who effectively erases his sharky Gordon Gekko persona here and emerges as an affable unmade bed. Downey infuses his careerist, sexually voracious Crabtree with an essential air of vulnerability and, as usual, Frances McDormand exerts almost superhuman power in the quietly effective role of a confident, self-contained woman who is just as confused as the men who stumble and blunder around her.

In some ways, the relationship between Grady and James Leer will remind viewers of the inter-generational friendship portrayed in last year's quirky coming-of-age tale "Rushmore." "Wonder Boys" has the same cockeyed quality to it, and it's looking at the same thing -- the ephemeral potency of youth and the elusive rewards of growing up -- though through the opposite lens. "Rushmore" was told from the point of view of the nerdy, maladjusted student; this is the story as it might have been told from Bill Murray's point of view, losing nothing in comedy and gaining everything in poignancy.

Curtis Hanson adopted "Wonder Boys" from the Michael Chabon novel. His overrated "L.A. Confidential" was all style and no substance, but he proves his artistic mettle here, coaxing a lively ensemble piece from the interior monologues of Chabon's novel and letting this oddly affecting story tell itself in its own way. With a wistful look at the wages of ambition and the failure of promise, "Wonder Boys" finally celebrates self-awareness, ending on a muted, quietly moving note of triumph.

`Wonder Boys'

Directed by Curtis Hanson

Starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey, Jr., Rip Torn, Katie Holmes

Rated R (language and drug content)

Running time 112 minutes

Released by Paramount Pictures

Sun score ***

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