Wonder Boys

In “Wonder Boys,” Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a novelist/college professor who’s been working on his latest book for seven years, whose wife has just left him, and whose mistress (Frances McDormand) has just announced she’s pregnant.

Furthermore, his student/tenant Hannah (Katie Holmes) keeps coming on to him, his editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town demanding the finished book, and his star pupil James (Tobey Maguire) has just shot the chancellor’s dog.

While things aren’t going too well for Grady, they go marvelously for this film, a smart, soft-centered comedy in which Michael Douglas gets to stop being Michael Douglas and play a real character.

Grady is disheveled, unkempt, even slovenly in his appearance. The reason he takes any interest at all in the often-fibbing James is that he sees James as a younger version of himself. Grady has been through several wives and now suffers from both writer’s block and diarrhea of the typewriter (he’s up to page 2,000-something, yet still has no idea what he’s writing about). He also drinks too much and occasionally has black-outs. If he can put James on the right track, maybe he can not only prevent this from becoming James’ fate, but perhaps straighten himself out, too.

Maguire, ordinarily a likable young fellow (though often unfathomably mild and wooden), really comes to life here, showing us James’ deep, lonely, literary soul.

Sadly, for as intelligent as “Wonder Boys” is most of the way through, its finale is puzzlingly neat and tidy. The characters’ fates are reasonable, but the rushed-at manner in which those destinies are arrived at makes you wonder, boy.

B+ (; R, fairly heavy profanity, occasional drug use (marijuana).)