Meaning At Middle Age

Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is not having a good day. His wife leaves him in the morning. He finds out that his lover, Sara (Frances McDormand), is pregnant. She's the chancellor of the Pittsburgh college where Grady teaches creative writing--and she's married to the head of the English department (Richard Thomas). Worse yet, his prize pupil--a strange and rather morbid young man named James Leer (Tobey Maguire)--shoots Sara's blind dog and steals her husband's most prized possession, the actual jacket Marilyn Monroe was wearing when she married Joe DiMaggio. All of which occurs at a party at which Grady's editor from New York, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), arrives with a strikingly tall transvestite (Michael Cavadias) on his arm.

This is the beginning of the misadventures of the former wonder boy Grady Tripp, an acclaimed writer who has not published a word since his first novel seven years earlier. His problem is not writer's block. Indeed, fueled by the pot he smokes from morning through night, Grady is now well past the 2,000th page of his next novel, with the finish line nowhere in sight. His editor wants to see the book. Sara and her husband want to find their dog, not to mention Marilyn's jacket, both of which are in the trunk of a car Grady is driving. A car that happens to be stolen.

Chaos continues to hound the disheveled but well-meaning Grady in "Wonder Boys," the surprising and curiously touching comedy director Curtis Hanson and writer Steve Kloves have made from Michael Chabon's novel. Few things are harder to pull off than picaresque comedy. One false move and you're drowning in whimsy. One contrivance too many and the whole thing can seem forced and arbitrary. In outline, "Wonder Boys" might sound guilty of both sins. But Hanson & Co. root this lunacy in very real emotions and very real settings. (How whimsical can winter in Pittsburgh be?) With a sleight of hand so casual we don't see how the trick is accomplished, Hanson and his cast convince us these people are real, our intimate acquaintances. No one is playing the farce for laughs--and as a result, the laughs come tumbling out on their own. Who knew that Hanson had such an uncanny comic touch? Typecast for many years as a director of thrillers ("Bad Influence," "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"), Hanson finally made the A list with his terrific neo-noir "L.A. Confidential," which confirmed his status as a topnotch genre director. "Wonder Boys" convinces me he can do anything.

For most people, the biggest surprise will be Michael Douglas. For both those who love him and those who don't, he's become the Yuppie version of The Man You Love to Hate. It hasn't helped his reputation that he's starred in some of the more rancid entertainments of the last two decades, from "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct" to "Black Rain" and "Falling Down." But remember his fine funny turn in "The War of the Roses"? Douglas is a superb (and underused) comic actor: one who knows that the secret of being funny is never begging for a laugh. He's never been more appealing than as the frazzled, overgrown (and overweight) 50-year-old boy Grady, who in the course of running away from all his problems finds his long-postponed place in the world.

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It's the loosest and juiciest performance of his career, and it's set off beautifully by Tobey Maguire's spooky minimalism. The self-contained Maguire isn't the easiest actor to play off--in "The Cider House Rules," Charlize Theron seems to be romancing a shadow. But there's a lovely give and take between the paternal Grady and the enigmatic, passive-aggressive James, a congenital fabricator who will push people as far as he can to get a reaction. And how refreshing is it to see a Hollywood movie where the middle-aged hero has no sexual interest in his adoring young student (Katie Holmes) but instead lusts after the age-appropriate Sara?

Chabon's burnished and fanciful prose doesn't lend itself easily to the movies, but Kloves (writer-director of "The Fabulous Baker Boys") has done a remarkable job, condensing Chabon's picaresque plot into a fleet and funny narrative without sacrificing Chabon's lyricism, his melancholy or his pansexual high spirits. Hanson has gotten great support from cinematographer Dante Spinotti and legendary editor Dede Allen ("Bonnie and Clyde"), who has not cut a film in eight years. "Wonder Boys" doesn't hit you over the head--its wackiness as well as its humanity slips up on you, catches you off guard. One doesn't want to oversell such a minor-key, low-concept movie, but I'll say it anyway--the movie is pure pleasure.

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