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At the Movies: ‘Wonder Boys’

February 23, 2000

Grady Tripp has fallen, and he can’t get up. What’s worse, he seems to have no idea that anything’s wrong.

In Curtis Hanson’s wonderfully elegiac ``Wonder Boys,″ based on Michael Chabon’s book, Grady (Michael Douglas) is a raffish, graying writer and Pittsburgh university professor whose first novel propelled him to literary heights. But his follow-up _ well, that’s another story.

It’s not that he can’t write it. Just the opposite: He can’t stop. Page after page, he churns forth prose from his gut, writing and writing as his real life sinks ever deeper into inertia.

His umpteenth wife has just left. His affair with the university chancellor (Frances McDormand) is at a crossroads. His agent (Robert Downey Jr.) is pushing him to publish _ or perish professionally. One of his students, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), is melting down; another, Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), is trying to seduce him.

This is the premise for the three-day odyssey of angst and epiphany chronicled in ``Wonder Boys,″ a memorable, melancholy ride through one lost soul’s slow realization that he has outgrown the shine of his potential.

The prime reason for the movie’s success is, somewhat surprisingly, Michael Douglas, an actor known more for evoking the testosterone side of male characters than the sensitive, self-aware side. As played by Douglas, Grady Tripp is a pot-smoking, womanizing, somewhat egomaniacal lit-crit snot who’s bought into the praise that’s been lavished upon him. But in the three days of his life that we see, the flip side is revealed _ the place where the drugs and flings and lack of self-discipline have dumped him. It’s not pretty.

What reveals it in stark relief is his relationship with James, a promising young writer having difficulty separating fiction from reality. Grady takes James under his wing. But as Grady decays and his life unravels, he begins to wonder whether he’s in any position to help James _ indeed, whether he has any wisdom at all to offer a young version of himself.

Maguire is the perfect choice for James. His bemused take on the world, deployed so well in ``Pleasantville″ and ``The Cider House Rules,″ takes on a different dimension here. The interplay of truth and deception that governs James’ life gives Maguire a chance to branch out, to take the good-hearted characters of his previous films and give them a darker side to conquer. He looks to Grady for support, and finds Grady, equally confused, staring right back.

As Grady’s agent, Terry Crabtree, Downey rounds out the triumvirate of wonder boys. He, too, was a star in his profession, but now he is barely hanging onto his job, thanks to Grady’s unfinished manuscript. Seeing the three of them try to claw their way through their lives, each as blind as the other two, is quietly heartbreaking and feels absolutely genuine.

McDormand is her usual welcome presence, this time as a woman balancing the rigors of being a university chancellor with the juggling act that infidelity demands. Holmes, star of the hormones-and-learners’-permits TV show ``Dawson’s Creek,″ shows again that her movie choices are wiser. She was great in ``Go″ and ``Teaching Mrs. Tingle,″ and she’s great here _ as Grady’s temptation, but also as his critic.

There is no strict ``plot″ to ``Wonder Boys,″ simply a rolling, undefined feeling of forward movement that may not actually be forward _ much like Grady’s life. The pacing is crucial. The textured neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, rendered in gray winter tones, also fit the mood perfectly.

``Wonder Boys″ is a movie about tarnished hopes and making choices _ not just the right ones, but the act of making choices itself. As Grady’s book keeps growing, Hannah renders her opinion: ``It reads as if you didn’t make any choices at all.″

That’s what tends to happen in life. Good, caring men like Grady Tripp hurt themselves and the people they love by shutting down and refusing to make choices. To be happy, sometimes we have to make the tough choices.

That’s one of the quieter wonders of life, and the exploration of it is the main reason that ``Wonder Boys″ turns out to be a relevant, moving piece of filmmaking.

``Wonder Boys,″ a Paramount Pictures release, is scripted by Steve Kloves based on Chabon’s novel. Hanson and Scott Rudin produced. It is rated R.

___

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.

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