Novelist and college teacher Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is a literary luminary on the strength of his smash first book but his follow-up is going nowhere after years of effort. Blocked emotionally as well as creatively this rumpled pot-smoking eccentric has driven away his wife and squandered another opportunity for love with his school’s hubby-cheating chancellor (Frances McDormand). Then an exceptionally gifted young student (Tobey Maguire) triggers a series of misadventures that exceeds anything Grady ever dreamed up for his fiction.
In a performance that rivals his work in “Wall Street” as the best of his career Douglas grounds the film with effortless-looking naturalism and crusty charm. His knack for bringing sympathy to unsavory characters allows “Wonder Boys” to retain an edge while stealthily reaching for viewers’ heartstrings. Playing a sensitive misfit coming of age for the umpteenth time is no stretch for Maguire (“The Cider House Rules”) but he’s touchingly effective nonetheless. The invaluable Robert Downey Jr. (“Chaplin”) is delightful as Grady’s stressed-out but loyal agent who hits town with a hulking transvestite on his arm.
Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”) takes the fine screenplay adaptation by Steve Kloves (“The Fabulous Baker Boys”) and wrings it for every drop of humor and pathos. Wise and full of heart in its sly way “Wonder Boys” is the kind of deeply satisfying piece filmmakers must have in mind when they set out to make dramas. The obvious disparity between the film’s wide critical acclaim and dismal box-office performance earlier this year led Paramount Pictures to give it a rare re-release as the holiday Oscar season gets underway.