In Wonder Boys, Michael Douglas plays a jauntily cynical East Coast English professor named Grady Tripp, who, during the middle of a wintry second semester, finds himself lurching into a midlife crisis. With his red scarf and tortoise shell glasses, his elegantly tousled graying preppie hair, Grady is the campus’ resident dissolute literary intellectual, a glamourpuss in tweed. Gallant and reckless, he’s the sort of fellow who flirts with a pretty, adoring student (Katie Holmes) and then demonstrates his high scruples by sleeping with a colleague’s wife instead.
As a movie, ”Wonder Boys” is a lot like Grady: sweet, flaky, and more than a little aimless. The director, Curtis Hanson, may be working out a few sophomore jitters of his own. His last film, the incendiary ’50s underworld labyrinth ”L.A. Confidential,” was the first to win him acclaim as an artist, and ”Wonder Boys,” adapted by Steve Kloves (”The Fabulous Baker Boys”) from a 1995 novel by Michael Chabon, feels like an overly considered change up. It’s Hanson’s attempt to do something shaggy and adventurous and offbeat, but, as refreshing as it is to see a movie take an open eyed view of life on campus, I’d have liked ”Wonder Boys” better if it weren’t so whimsical and precious — a series of conceits posing as characters.
Every relationship in ”Wonder Boys” is freighted with Thematic Significance, yet the movie also spends much of its time laboring to be wacky and lighthearted. For every ruefully funny scene of Grady and his academic comrades trying to wrest some truth out of what they do, there are five others in which Grady frets over his stolen car or limps around after being bitten by the chancellor’s dog.
The film’s central bond is the one between Grady and his most gifted student, a theatrically morose writer named James Leer (Tobey Maguire), whose penchant for stealing and for making up most of what he says may just mark him as a born novelist. Maguire, who in ”The Cider House Rules” seemed to have come down with a bad case of the gawks, gives James a creepy winsomeness; this young actor was born to play cerebral misfits — with his baby owl stare, he keeps you focused on what he’s ”not” saying.
”Wonder Boys” tries to turn James into a portrait of the artist as a young poseur freak. In a bit of slapstick mayhem, he shoots and kills that offending dog, and the movie ends up making more absurd rib nudging references to that damn dead pooch — it gets stowed in Grady’s trunk — than you’d expect to see in a David Spade comedy. Even at its crudest, ”Wonder Boys” is never less than affectionate, yet it’s also rather lackluster. Curtis Hanson may have wanted to make a movie that gleamed with humanity as much as ”L.A. Confidential” burned with malevolence, but he’s so intent on getting us to like his characters that he didn’t give them enough juice.