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Cover story/Movie review: 'Wonder Boys'

Michael Douglas is at his best in this smart Curtis Hanson film that uses Pittsburgh as one of its characters

Friday, February 25, 2000

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

Despite its high-powered Hollywood connections, "Wonder Boys" has the charm and low-key intelligence of an independent film.

'Wonder Boys'

Rating: R for drug use, language

Starring: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand

Director: Curtis Hanson

Web site: www.wonderboys

Critic's call: 3 stars.

Related 'Wonder Boys' coverage:

Book review: 'Boys' is true to the book

On Location: Where they shot

Soundtrack Review: Enlisting Pop's Wonder Boys

More on Michael Douglas' videos:

On Video: Michael Douglas has made smart and timely choices in his films


And despite the presence of Michael Douglas and director Curtis Hanson, veterans of big-budget thrillers full of sex and violence like "A Perfect Murder" and "L.A. Confidential," "Wonder Boys" has no on-screen sex and only one shooting -- of a dog.

For those reasons alone, it won't break box-office records.

What it does have is bright, funny dialogue, solid performances, a tight plot and some of the best Pittsburgh settings of any movie made here.

Carnegie Mellon never looked more collegiate, the Hill District more seedy, Friendship more cozy and Shady Side Academy's Fox Chapel campus more WASPish. Using University of Pittsburgh graduate Michael Chabon's 1995 novel of the same name, Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves cast the city as one of the characters.

Pittsburgh is a bigger, scruffier version of Grady Tripp (Douglas) whose rumpled, indifferent appearance reflects his disordered emotional life. Tripp, who's usually on a drug-induced trip of one kind or another, is trying to hold his middle-aged slide at bay by treading water.

Once a wunderkind novelist, the fortyish Tripp now hides out at a Pittsburgh college teaching would-be wunderkinds and avoiding commitment, both as a writer and a lover. Wrapped in a pinkish woman's bathrobe in the second-floor study of his Friendship house, Tripp effortlessly pounds out page after page of his next book, "Wonder Boys," because if he ends it, he'll have to move on.

Married to a younger woman, he's in love with someone his own age, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), chancellor of the college and wife of his boss, Walter (Richard Thomas), the uptight chairman of the English department.

Content to let that arrangement ride, Tripp is unceremoniously shoved into action on the opening day of the college's WordFest, a conference of literary boozing and schmoozing.

First, his wife leaves him, then Sara reveals she's pregnant. At the same time, his editor, Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), is in town to sniff out the status of Tripp's novel as well as the male students.

But, this is college, so there are always students around to distract Tripp's attention from his own problems. His diversion is James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a creepy, pasty-faced loner with an unhealthy obsession for movie-star suicides and a knack for writing fiction at the drop of a hat. In fact, some of his best fiction is his autobiography.

Lolling lusciously in the background is another writing student, Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), who's sending Tripp the kind of love vibes he's just not able to handle at the moment.

Luckily, Kloves, writer and director of "The Fabulous Baker Boys," decided to slide the Chabon plot virtually intact into the screenplay. It's a cleverly structured story built from quirky, engaging pieces which takes Tripp from a lovable loser to responsible, respectable adult in three days.

Some of the plot devices feature a Polish Hill transvestite, the dead dog in the trunk of a 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible, a jacket owned by Marilyn Monroe and a guy with a James Brown hairdo whose name is not Vernon Hardapple.

All of this plays out in front of a backdrop reeking of Pittsburgh and its environs, full of bridges, smoke-belching factories, rivers and dreary winter weather. (There's so much artificial snow used that the snow-makers get a credit.)

Kloves kept a lot of the snappy dialogue, too, which goes a long way into making "Wonder Boys" an intelligent film for adults.

But, despite the performances of Douglas, who never seemed more genuine and vulnerable, Maguire, who excels at being spaced-out and naive, the sadly underused McDormand and the breezy Downey, "Wonder Boys" makes a few mistakes.

Most of all, its creators confuse creative with cute, fiction writing with sitting at a typewriter and middle-aged despair with a fuzzy robe.

There's no edge to "Wonder Boys," no serious issue that can't be dismissed with a joke or a toke.

"Wonder Boys" the novel had a dark side to it, echoes of desperation and sadness in Tripp's life. "Wonder Boys" the movie is full of sappy optimism beneath its rebellious veneer of drugs and adultery.

Yet, it's impossible not to like this movie. With a little stretch, its characters are believable, its story an enduring classic of redemption and its Pittsburgh locale delivered without artificiality or gloss.

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