[Written for Film.com]
by Robert Horton
If we can stop talking about Catherine Zeta-Jones for a moment, we might give Michael Douglas his due for Wonder Boys. After enduring a lot of jokes about May-December romances, Douglas comes bouncing back with one of his best performances, the central role in an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s comic novel.
The role is Grady Tripp, novelist and college professor at a university in Pittsburgh. If he is not actually over the hill, it is only because Grady never got to the top in the first place, although his previous novel — seven years old now — received acclaim. Trying to bash out that follow-up book has proved difficult, and Grady’s love life is an even bigger mess: his wife has just left him, and his married mistress (Frances McDormand) is pregnant. Oh, and her husband is the head of the English department at school.
This burgeoning chaos is a backdrop, really, for the main thread of Grady’s weekend from hell, which mostly involves a young student (Tobey Maguire) who may be very gifted. Maguire, pulling duty in yet another apprentice role, develops a pleasing rapport with Douglas. His character is messed up, too, having escaped an unfulfilling family life and evading the truth whenever possible, but he seems relatively stable — or maybe it’s just deadpan — next to the staggering shambles of Grady Tripp.
The film is written by the excellent Steve Kloves (who also tracked artistic frustration and free-floating depression in The Fabulous Baker Boys) and directed by Curtis Hanson, hot off L.A. Confidential. It’s all arranged around a series of well-crafted scenes that carry a bracingly grown-up tang: unhurried, played in a low key, with plenty of time to savor the details of character and place. Hanson is so quiet about all this that some of the material seems nearly to evaporate — ah, but he’s got a secret weapon: Robert Downey Jr., as Grady’s New York book editor, in town for a writer’s festival. This guy is lusting after both Grady’s star student and the transvestite he picked up on the plane (the latter given a towering yet winsome performance by Michael Cavadias), but he’s especially lusting after Grady’s novel, which he needs to save his own ass in the publishing business. Is there anyone else in movies (or, unfortunately, in the prison system) as alert and sneaky and on top of the moment as Robert Downey Jr.?
Douglas gets to lean on a lot of props: Grady’s unruly tufts of graying hair, his glasses, his perpetual marijuana fog. There is something very pleasurable about his gentleness with the role, and the way he leaves out the self-satisfaction that sometimes obscures his performances. There’s a lot of care in this movie, including the crisply exact work of editor Dede Allen and cinematographer Dante Spinotti, and the little parts played by Rip Torn (pompous visiting author) and Katie Holmes (starstruck student with a crush on Grady). It’s self-effacing to a fault, but that seems less and less a fault as its pleasures replay themselves in your mind, from the absurd, how-did-I-get-here struggle with a ferocious dog to Grady’s droll pronouncement of the animal’s demise: “I know a dead dog when I see one.” Like most good dialogue, in movies or life, that line is really about the speaker himself.