So how was your weekend? For Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas of "The Game"), an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh, it has been a particularly troublesome one, to put it mildly. His wife has just left him. His girlfriend Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand of "Fargo"), who happens to be chancellor of the university and married to Grady's boss, has just told him that she's pregnant with his child. And Hannah (Katie Holmes of "Go"), one of the students in his writing class, has a huge crush on him. Meanwhile, the campus is playing host to 'Wordfest', which has attracted a number of people that Grady would rather not have to deal with, particularly his New York editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr. of "Bowfinger"), who is expecting to read his long-delayed new manuscript. And then there's James Leer (Tobey Maguire of "The Cider House Rules"), another student of his who is a brilliant writer, yet has the cheery disposition of a condemned man. And to top it off, Grady is getting nowhere with his latest novel, which consists of two thousand typed pages, all single-spaced, that say nothing of importance. Looking every bit burnt out, Grady prefers to be stoned on pot, letting life steamroll over his tired body.
But the trouble really starts during the Wordfest reception at the Gaskell house. On a whim, Grady leads James on an unauthorized excursion into the master bedroom to sneak a peak at an authentic Marilyn Monroe jacket belonging to Sara's husband. Unfortunately, the excursion is interrupted by Sara's blind dog, which takes a bite out of Grady's leg and is then promptly shot dead by James. Of course, Grady and James decide to cover up the crime, which sets in motion a chain of events that quickly evolves into a weekend from hell.
"Wonder Boys" is Curtis Hanson's first film since his Academy Award-winning "L.A. Confidential". However, those expecting something as compelling as his 1997 neo-noir are likely to be frustrated and disappointed. Based on the book of the same name by Michael Chabon, this film is more of a character study than anything else, including plot. In the case of "Wonder Boys", the character is the plot, as Grady makes the uneasy transition from allowing himself to be carried away by what life throws at him, to finding the inspiration to make his own choices again and living life to the fullest. To help bring about this change, Grady is provided impetus from a number of sources, particularly his odd relationship with James, who seems to share his pessimistic outlook on life.
Michael Douglas is better known for playing characters that exude confidence and belligerence, from his portrayal of Gordon Gecko in "Wall Street" to playing Gwyneth Paltrow's scheming husband in "A Perfect Murder". In this latest film, Douglas does a remarkable job, shedding his oily image to play almost the exact opposite, a broken man who is a little worse for wear, so tired of the demands placed on him that he doesn't even bother shaving anymore. On the other hand, Tobey Maguire, who has made quite a name for himself in features such as "Pleasantville", "Ride with the Devil" and "The Cider House Rules", plays James in a tediously monotone manner, which ends up sabotaging the nuances of his character's similar development. As for the rest of the cast, Frances McDormand acquits herself quite well as a woman fed up with Grady's lack of momentum, Katie Holmes shines as a student with more than tutorials on her mind, while Robert Downey Jr. is passable as Grady's flighty editor.
Focusing more on the development of its main character, which is brilliantly executed by Douglas, "Wonder Boys" is a film that tends to meander quite a bit, as it isn't always obvious how things will develop, since many of the standard story clichés don't apply here. Good, but not great, this is a subtle character study that may appeal to some, but is definitely not the type of film for those moviegoers who like their stories straight up.