The coming-of-age genre gets a delectably original reworking in “Wonder Boys,” Curtis Hanson’s eagerly awaited follow-up to “L.A. Confidential.” This superbly mounted screwball comedy centers on the midlife crisis of a college professor who’s pushed by forces beyond his control into maturity and responsibility. In his most nuanced performance to date, Michael Douglas heads an ensemble film in which every part is splendidly cast. Adapted by Steve Kloves from Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel, pic is witty and sophisticated in a way that will appeal to mature and educated viewers, although the Paramount release will need strong critical support; while it is a gratifying entertainment of leisurely elegance and delicious nastiness, the film lacks obvious appeal and commercial hooks in today’s youth-dominated market.
Hopping from genre to genre with apparent ease, Hanson shows that he is a director able to locate through dexterous mise-en-scene the distinctive elements of each film, whether a psychological thriller (“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”), a routine actioner (“The River Wild”) or a sublime noirish crimer (“L.A. Confidential”). His first foray into comedy, “Wonder Boys” distinguishes itself as a character-driven piece in which the astute humor is intrinsic to the bizarre situations and endless crises in which the characters find themselves.
After countless comedies set in high school, a locale determined as much by an obsession with youth in American culture as by demographics of the moviegoing public, it’s refreshing to see a campus comedy populated largely by grownups. Unlike most coming-of-age sagas, “Wonder Boys” chronicles the rites of passage of a middle-aged man.
Pushing 50, Grady Tripp (Douglas), an English professor who was once the wonder boy and darling of the literati, is unable to finish his new novel, which has grown to humongous proportions. Consumed with fear that it will fail to live up to his masterpiece, published seven years earlier, he toys with various endings while the new book sits, waiting to be rescued.
In the first scene, a sensitive student in Grady’s writing class named James Leer (Tobey Maguire) reads from his work and the other classmates provide “constructive” criticism. Grady immediately recognizes James’ talent, but what he cannot realize is the crucial role the boy will play in his career and emotional life. In a marvelous twist on the convention of heterosexual couples in screwball comedy, the picture centers the narrative on a new type of a romantic (though not gay) duo: a distressed professor and his suicidal student, who may be a pathological liar. As a comedy-adventure, “Wonder Boys” follows the logic of a road movie, with Grady and James driving around and encountering one bizarre situation after another.
To say that Grady is having a bad day is an understatement. When the story begins, his wife has left him, and soon after, he is informed by his lover, college chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), whose husband, Walter (Richard Thomas), is the head of the English department and thus Grady’s boss, that she is pregnant and has not decided what to do with their baby. Complicating the situation and increasing Grady’s anxieties is the university’s literary festival, Wordfest, which brings the commercial interests into the insular ivy-tower academic environment. It’s crisis time, accentuated by the presence of Q (Rip Torn), the older, self-satisfied writer who serves as the symbol of success that Grady once had.
Early on, there is a wonderful sequence, a literati party that vividly captures a typical college soiree in which talk ranges from existential philosophy to sleazy gossip. Grady’s flamboyant editor, Terry (a splendid Robert Downey Jr.), arrives with the tall, elegant Miss Sloviak (Michael Cavaias) who, as everyone suspects, is a transvestite. As soon as Terry lays his eyes on James, a romantic infatuation begins, leading to some surprising results.
Each of the eccentric characters is marvelously introduced and integrated into the tale. Included among them is Hannah (Katie Holmes), a student of Grady’s who rents a room in his house and displays an unabashed desire to be part of his life. In this, as in other respects, pic is emotionally true in showing a student with an overwhelming crush on an older teacher.
Pic has its share of hilariously rude moments, some of which involve Walter’s dog and a jacket that supposedly belonged to Marilyn Monroe. Among the subplots that enrich the central thread is one concerning Vernon Hardapple (Richard Knox), who mysteriously stalks Grady, and Oola (Jane Adams), Vernon’s pregnant g.f.
Fresh observations provide unpredictable twists that escalate into a series of tragicomic incidents. Kloves, who wrote and directed “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” is deft at portraying losers: “Wonder Boys” could be described as a comedy about the gallantry of defeat. His faithful rendition of Chabon’s novel maintains the author’s wicked, sharp-tongued humor. Boasting a crazy kind of sweetness, pic exudes tremendous charm, a result of impeccable timing, right tone and flawless performances. What comes through in each role is an improbable, almost romantic affection for the character that sets the mood for the whole movie.
Under Hanson’s guidance, Douglas shows a real comedic flair seldom tapped before. He digs deeply into the nuttiness without camping it up or winking at the audience. As his romantic partner, McDormand excels in a quiet, understated perf that differs from earlier efforts. Rest of the large cast, particularly Downey, is equally accomplished.
Collaborating again with “L.A. Confidential” lenser Dante Spinotti, Hanson gives his film, which was shot in wintry Pittsburgh, a deliberately unpolished and deceptively casual look. Dede Allen’s masterful editing underlines the rich characterization and brings snap to the storytelling.
The movie’s frivolous touches and eccentric details emphasize its dry, measured wit and the power of comedy to underscore serious ideas. Massively inventive, “Wonder Boys” is spiked with fresh, perverse humor that flows naturally from the straight-faced playing. Soundtrack spiked by flavorful pop tunes is highlighted by Bob Dylan’s first new recorded song in three years, “Things Have Changed.”