Wonder Boys – 4.5 stars

I had dinner with a critic friend, David Ehrenstein, around the time this picture was released.  He said something to the effect of, “A movie about these people had not been done yet.  It was its time.”  He was right, but before getting to the film, I wanted to note that the folks who did publicity for Curtis Hanson’s follow-up to L.A. Confidential should have been lined up and shot.   The previews portrayed the movie as a screwball comedy with a bespectacled Michael Douglas playing a wise and ultimately grating character, a classier Weird Science with a bigger star.

Wonder Boys is nothing as it was presented.  Instead, it is a literate comedy of manners with the setting of higher education, and it is principally about the businesses of teaching and writing.  Douglas is a professor working on his second novel (his first, a successful work, was published seven years prior), which has ballooned to a deathless 2200 pages.  His agent (Robert Downey, Jr.) is en route to WordFest, a weekend of literary activities, to read the novel.  In the meantime, Douglas is dealing with one peculiar but gifted student (Tobey Maguire), one gorgeuous student, who also happens to rent a room in his house and who is coming on to him (Katie Holmes), and the chancellor of the department, with whom he is having an affair (Frances McDormand).  Bad thing upon bad thing happens, but within the very funny travails, Hanson develops strong relationships between the characters.  He also gives more than a glimpse into the soul of writing and teaching, and Douglas actually grows, and grows convincingly, given what could have been events offered solely for their madcap nature.

The film also makes great use of the city of Pittsburgh, which has always deserved better than —

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