Wonder Boys is about an English professor, Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), who’s spent years working on the follow-up to his successful first novel (it’s the opposite to writer’s block - his book is well over a thousand pages long, with no ending in sight).We follow Tripp’s misadventures during the weekend of the university’s annual writers’ conference, when he crosses paths with two other “wonder boys”. One is his editor, whose career was built on the success of Tripp’s first novel, and is now floundering. As Robert Downey Jr plays him, Terry Crabtree can talk his way out of - or into - anything. The other is James Leer (Tobey Maguire), one of Tripp’s students - a promising writer desperately in need of guidance.
The critical success of LA Confidential made director Curtis Hanson somewhat of a “wonder boy” himself (it wasn’t his first film, but his first big critical hit). But Hanson’s had no problem delivering on the promise of that film. Wonder Boys is marvellous: funny and deftly directed, with evocative wintry camerawork from Dante Spinotti. Steve Kloves has transformed Michael Chabon’s sprawling novel into a more contained sequence of events, with beautifully modulated peaks and troughs, and without losing what was best about the book - the refreshingly realistic, but unpredictable, characters. Hanson and his producers have assembled a dream cast to bring them to life: Downey Jr, Maguire, Katie Holmes (as a student besotted with her professor), and Frances McDormand (as Tripp’s Chancellor - and mistress).
Douglas is in virtually every scene, and it’s a blessing to see him putting his considerable screen presence and charm to use creating a likeable character for a change. Tripp’s given to smoking too much dope, and the occasional fainting spell, and seems resigned to the chaos going on around him almost as if he’s used to it. But we admire Tripp for his self-deprecating humour and willingness to act according to what he feels is right, and for being guided by the interests of those he cares about.The character is funny, sincere and intelligent; just like the film.