A POIGNANT TRAGICOMEDY, a madcap character study, and a midlife crisis movie about belatedly coming-of-age, Wonder Boys wants it every which way it can, and sends Michael Douglas careening through set piece after set piece to get it. That the film nearly achieves such disparate ends is, however, more a tribute to sheer antic effort than unified vision.
Based on Michael Chabon's ribald, satirical 1995 novel, the film presents a crucial weekend in the life of Grady Tripp (Douglas), a shaggy, spliff-sparking English prof who's burdened by the smashing success of his debut novel. (Wonder Boys the novel was also Chabon's sophomore effort, following The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.) Tripp is seven years and 2,600 pages—and counting—into the follow-up when his desperate editor (Robert Downey Jr.) arrives, clinging to a transvestite companion. Making matters much worse, Tripp's trophy wife has bolted; his married mistress (Frances McDormand) is pregnant; a bodacious student (Katie Homes) tempts him unceasingly; and his brilliant but disturbed prot駩 (Tobey Maguire) has the police knocking on Tripp's door. Throw in a dead dog, a stolen car, a lost manuscript, and a purloined coat once belonging to Marilyn Monroe, and we have the makings of one of those great old Cary Grant misadventures.
directed by Curtis Hanson
with Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., Frances McDormand, and Tobey Maguire
opens February 25 at Metro, Oak Tree, Pacific Place
But Douglas replaces Grant's addled suavity with weary resignation, and it's on his subtle performance that the movie's tone shifts. Rather than rage against the cosmic absurdity like a frenetic Grant, he acquiesces—deepening his character but also lending the screwball proceedings an incongruous gravity. Equally measured turns come from an utterly unpretentious McDormand and Maguire, who, in a more eccentric role, displays an awkward reserve that's believably freaky. Downey, on the other hand, is just freaky. And Holmes has little to do but pout. (Thankfully the plot doesn't have her hooking up with the 50-plus Douglas, though we know he has a way with the young ladies.)
Yet while Douglas paints a portrait of the artist as a self-indulgent geezer, director Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential) adamantly sticks to the established screwball strictures. Regardless of whether he was gunning for a genre-defying hybrid, he's made an off-kilter, meandering film. Hanson maintains a moderately swift pace, building toward a grand finale that doesn't come—partly because it's weakly written, partly because Douglas has inadvertently worked against it, siphoning off much of the plot's energy with his performance. Wonder Boys aspires to coalesce into something profound, but it ends up a mildly entertaining collection of quirky characters and episodes.