Wonder Boys stars Michael Douglas as Professor Grady Tripp, who teaches English at a liberal arts university in Pittsburgh. Tripp is facing a host of problems: his wife has recently left him, which sets him up to struggle with confessing his love to the Chancellor, Sara (Frances McDormand); a student of his (Tobey Maguire), James Leer, shoots and kills Sara's dog, and though he is brilliant, he's also a compulsive liar; his publisher (Robert Downey Jr., in the beginning stages of his decade-long comeback) his looking to see a finished draft of his seven-years-in-the-works novel; a man who looks awfully like James Brown (Richard Knox) believes he stole his car; another student (Katie Holmes) is pressing for a relationship with him. The results of these alternate between hilarity and seriousness, and Douglas proves adept at handling both.
The problem with the film is that it never transcends in either respect. As a dark comedy about a man whose former glories are far beyond him, its too nice to Tripp; at times we're set up to laugh at the failures in his life, but are then immediately forced to feel sorry for him instead. But as a teachers-who-inspire drama, it doesn't really succeed either; at the end we feel that the good he's done for James is damaging to himself. Working from Steve Kloves adaptation of Michael Chabon's novel of the same name (fun fact: Chabon has a screen story credit for Spider-Man 2, also starring Maguire), it seems as if Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) doesn't really know what he wants the film to be, so he throws a couple of things at the screen and just lets them be, whether they stick or not (not that I don't admire Hanson as a director, but he's known for inconsistency).
The film does work, though, as a character study of Tripp, and Douglas's excellent performance carries much of the film. Its a wonder that Douglas has only once been Oscar nominated (1987's Wall Street, for which he won), as he is perhaps one of the most consistently excellent actors working today. In his hands, Tripp becomes a complex character who, ironically, is so lost in his own life that he himself needs an author to straighten it all up. Maguire, pre-Spider-Man, gives a lovely performance that reminds us of why he was chosen for that movie to begin with, and Holmes too reminds us that once upon a time she was known as a talented rising actress instead of Mrs. Tom Cruise. And Downey Jr., though not especially notable here, does show shadows of his talent that would again come to the forefront later in the decade.
Its not that I didn't like Wonder Boys; I found it an interesting diversion. My issue with it is that this kind of story has been done much better, such as in Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, and Stand and Deliver. Still, its worth checking out for Michael Douglas.