Michael Douglas may be living a blissful life with Catherine Zeta-Jones, but Grady Tripp, his alter ego in "Wonder Boys," doesn't have things quite so easy.
Set in the bleakness of a Pittsburgh winter, the film finds the thrice-married college professor and novelist experiencing a weekend we wouldn't wish on our worst enemy. Seven years after the critical success of his debut novel, Tripp suffers the opposite of writer's block as he toils away at its follow-up, which has now reached 2611 pages and is completely unfocused. It probably doesn't help that he spends an ample amount of time hitting the reefer.
During an annual writing conference -- and just after Tripp's third wife has walked out on him -- his editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), arrives on the arm of a transvestite, eagerly anticipating the fruits of the author's seven-year labor. But Tripp has other issues competing for his time: He comes to the rescue of James Leer (Tobey Maguire), his suicidal young prodigy, and suffers through the discovery that his mistress, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), his university's chancellor and the wife of English Department chair Walter Gaskell (Richard Thomas), is pregnant with Tripp's child.
Somehow, Leer ends up shooting and killing the Chancellor's blind dog (who attacks Tripp in a bizarre moment of black comedy) and stealing Walter's prized possession, a jacket that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe. Both of these incidents eventually lead to Tripp and Leer being pursued by the law.
Douglas, whose rumpled appearance is in striking contrast to most of his recent roles, is thoroughly believable as the down-and-out writer. He builds a strong chemistry with Maguire, whose rather expressionless delivery and hollow eyes solidly display the sexual and emotional ambivalence of his character. As the gay editor who ends up seducing Leer, Downey Jr. provides his own brand of humor to bring Crabtree to life.
Adapted by Steven Kloves from Michael Chabon's novel, this small-scale, intimate character study is probably not what most people expected from director Curtis Hanson's first film since the much-lauded "L.A. Confidential." But in its own slight way, "Wonder Boys" works. Not completely, mind you: Many of the choices that the characters make are a little difficult to swallow, and a car chase wherein Tripp loses his latest manuscript is also rather unbelievable. (It's never explained how or why the manuscript got into the car in the first place).
But these are minor points. What makes the dark comedy of "Wonder Boys" work is the manner in which its characters swim through life's murky depths, yet still find a way to make it to the surface. That's the true wonder of this flawed but nonetheless enjoyable film.