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Wonder Boys   B+

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Curtis Hanson
Writer: Steven Kloves (based on the novel by Michael Chabon)
Cast: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes, Richard Thomas, Rip Torn.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Wonder Boys crackles with offbeat energy and literary wit. It's equal parts screwball comedy and coming-of-age drama -- and hell, maybe it can't even make up its mind what it wants to be. Still, it's a pleasant surprise that's kinda sweet and silly, yet also a bit dark, dysfunctional, and even moving.

The movie invites us to tag along with English professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) during one crazy weekend of his life. Grady wrote "the great American novel" seven years ago, but hasn't been able to complete his follow-up -- and his publisher (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town and hopes that he'll have the new masterpiece to take back with him. Grady's wife just left him, and the school Chancellor (Frances McDormand), whom he's having an affair with, just revealed to him that she's pregnant with his child. And Grady's problems have only just begun.

Throughout the weekend, he'll have to deal with the advances of a female student (Katie Holmes), a dead dog, a stolen Marilyn Monroe jacket, cops, and a James Brown look-a-like who claims Grady stole his car. Through most of it, though, a strange student named James Leer (Tobey Maguire) accompanies Grady, and what they learn from each other is at the heart of the film.

Wonder Boys displays an adoration for its characters rare in Hollywood films these days. Even though Grady's not the model of human decency -- he's a pot-smoking adulterer who covers up the shooting of a blind dog -- you identify with him through his troubles and hope that he makes it through in one piece. Tobey Maguire is fine as James -- a gifted yet troubled young writer who may be a pathological liar -- but Maguire should start taking on roles that have a bit more range. Those wide eyes and sad face can only take you so far, buddy.

One of this movie's treasures is the performance by Robert Downey Jr. He brings a vitality to his character that is enchanting. He steals every scene he's in, and there's nothing show-offish about his performance whatsoever. Downey just has a magnetism, a natural grace and ability to breathe life into his every role. Now, if only he'd get his act together in real life and stay off the drugs and out of jail. C'mon, Rob, we're rooting for you.

Wonder Boys was directed by Curtis Hanson, who helmed 1997's L.A. Confidential (which was highly overrated if you ask me). Where L.A. Confidential seemed cold and rigid, Wonder Boys is warm and relaxed. It may seem meandering and maybe even pointless to some people, but it really captures the essence of an insane, unpredictable weekend. It's an offbeat comedy mixed with a touching human drama, and it works surprisingly well -- even if the ending feels like it was tacked on at the last minute.

But what the hell? I liked this movie -- a lot, in fact -- and that's all that matters in the end, right?

Review published 03.03.2000.

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