Grade: A-

It’s been a good year for dark comedy in American movies.
Curtis Hanson’s followup to “L.A. Confidential” may not be as
coolly observant as “American Beauty” or as goofily off-the-
wall as “Being John Malkovich,” but its oddball mixture of
sharp satire and shaggy-dog absurdity puts it in the same
class as those two remarkable films.

Blessed with a marvelously literate script by Steve Kloves
(based on a book by the talented Michael Chabon), the story
centers on Grady Tripp, a scruffy creative writing teacher at
a Pittsburgh university who’s suffering from a peculiar kind
of writing disorder–he’s simply unable to finish his second
novel, which is up to page 2611. During a difficult weekend
when his school is hosting a writing colloquium, Tripp is
forced to deal with several problems. His wife has left him,
and his mistress–the chancellor of the university (Frances
McDormand) who happens to be married to the chairman of his
department (Richard Thomas)–informs him she’s pregnant. At
the same time, Tripp must deal with his anxious agent (Robert
Downey, Jr.) and two of his students–morose but incredibly
productive James Leer (Tobey Maguire) and lovely, sympathetic
Hannah (Katie Holmes), as well as a visiting writer who’s a
popular success (Rip Torn) and a strange fellow who swears
that Grady is driving his car (Richard Knox).

The preceding precis touches on only the major figures in the
convoluted plot–there’s a tangent involving Marilyn Monroe and
another concerning a blind dog, too–but suffice it to say that
the central relationship is between Tripp, an aging, hippie-
like adolescent seeking to straighten out his life by making
choices (the metaphor of his unfinished book), and Leer, the
new “wonder boy” on the block, who both teaches and is taught.
The mechanics of the plot are of the “frustration humor”
variety–everything seems to go wrong, and disaster piles on
disaster–but though the formula may be pretty old, it’s
handled with such wit, quirkiness and invention that it works
beautifully. And undergirding it all is a basic sense of
reality that gives emotional resonance to the farcical

The cast is superb. As Tripp, Michael Douglas, looking hugely
disheveled, does his best work in years; playing a real
character after so many pictures in which he’s glided by on an
air of silken yuppiness, he proves that he’s still a true
actor. Maguire, who was so faceless in “The Cider House Rules”
and “Ride With the Devil,” delivers a solid portrait of grim,
repressed youth. McDormand is a no-nonsense foil for Douglas,
and Downey seems to be having a ball as the drugged-up agent
(tyoecasting, indeed). The supporting cast makes its points
without over-exaggeration, with Knox getting big laughs as a
Little Richard wannabe.

It’s still early in the year, but it’s safe to say that the
odd magic that Hanson has worked in “Wonder Boys” will be
remembered come awards time in 2001. It’s a film that keeps
the audience pleasurably off-balance throughout, peopled by
characters whose eccentricities–wonder of wonders–provide
amusement rather than irritation. Though most of its humor is
dark, it will leave you lightheaded and giddy, wanting even