By Owen Gleiberman
Updated February 25, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Ever since Wall Street, Michael Douglas has slimed for our sins. In movie after movie, he has been cast as adulterers, corporate reptiles, and generally not very nice guys, and though he has often been effective, even inspired, it’s always a relief to see him escape this purgatory of sleaze and throw himself into the role of a warm, embracing character — someone whose charm goes deeper than his lizard skin.

In Wonder Boys, 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 glamour-puss 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. Seven years ago, Grady published a novel to great acclaim, but now, with everyone breathing down his neck for another masterpiece, he can’t finish the follow-up book. His wife, fed up with his self-indulgence, has abandoned him, and he’s a classic blocked writer, except that his blockage takes an eccentric form. Spewing out page upon free-form page, most of it under the influence of marijuana, Grady finds, to his peril, that he can’t stop writing. He’s all stoned “inspiration” and no discipline.

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.

Early on, Grady’s book editor shows up from New York, and he turns out to be a lusty predator played by Robert Downey Jr., who acts as if he’d never been within 50 miles of a publishing house. The character is supposed to be looking for Grady’s manuscript, but mostly he seems on hand to up the oddball quotient by squiring around a towering transvestite. At a cocktail party for the college’s annual literary festival, Grady slips away with Sara (Frances McDormand), his department chancellor. They’re in the middle of a fling, and when she announces that she’s pregnant, it immediately sets up the affair as a grand test of Grady’s maturity: Will he squirm out of it, or will he commit? Unfortunately, the romantic union is so thinly developed that the issue remains almost entirely abstract.

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.