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Wonder Boys (2000)

Most films about artists follow the same connect-the-dots plot structure: artist demonstrates superior talent, artist selfishly mucks up his or her personal life, artist either self-destructs or recovers sufficiently to birth another masterpiece. This kind of portrait is often so narrowly focused on clichéd depictions that its characters seem more like curious, fictional creatures than real human beings. Wonder Boys, based on the novel by Michael Chabon, follows this recognizable template, but its literate script, wry sense of humor, and compelling characters elevate it above standard "tortured artist" narratives.

Boys follows the woeful life of former literary prodigy Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), a best-selling author who shot to fame seven years before with his stunning debut novel, and hasn't published anything since. Now an English professor in his mid-50s, Tripp is burdened by the weight of his success and unfocused in all aspects of his life. His wife has left him, he's in love with the university's chancellor (Frances McDormand, Fargo), and his publisher (Robert Downey, Jr., Chaplin) has arrived expecting the sophomore novel of the century — the novel Grady's been writing for nearly a decade — a 2,612-page opus of meandering, unfocused verbiage.

Grady has developed "failure syndrome," that mental state in which talented people lose sight of their goals, can't produce a worthy work, and cyclically destroy their creative abilities by wallowing in self-perpetuating disappointment. Tripp's rambling book is the physical manifestation of his years of placid unhappiness, an unintentional monument to his own artistic and personal demise.

Enter James Leer (Tobey Maguire, The Cider House Rules), Grady's morose, reclusive, and supremely gifted student. James is a budding talent who inspires the stymied author to resolve his personal and professional issues. In turn, Tripp helps the troubled Leer by encouraging the young scribe's literary vision and adding some sorely needed fun to the boy's life. The two embark upon several days' worth of soul-searching and hapless events in what could be described as a World According to Garp-styled buddy film. But director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) exposes these characters so gradually and sensitively that their relationship rings true. Douglas and Maguire, thirty years apart in age, play these withdrawn wordsmiths as kindred souls whose life experience is different, but whose place in the world is the same. Maguire is slightly stiff, and Douglas' narration is forced at times, but the intelligence with which they both imbue their roles and Douglas' honest, world-weary portrayal more than make up for any overly self-conscious tinges.

All of the characters in Wonder Boys mirror predictable stereotypes — the failing mentor, the budding artist, the neglected girlfriend, the quirky sidekick — but screenwriter Steven Kloves (Flesh and Bone) has crafted a knowing script which retains much of the book's genuine, thoughtful dialogue for Boys' worthy cast. Each performance celebrates individuality without overindulging in idiosyncrasies; these are flawed, real people, who smoke dope, have affairs, and make mistakes.

Robert Downey, Jr. is perfect as Tripp's hedonistic publisher. Tempering bad-boy gusto with vulnerability, humor, and a dash of wisdom, Downey again displays his substantial charisma and skill — gifts all too often wasted in a jail cell. Katie Holmes (Dawson's Creek, Teaching Mrs. Tingle) imbues her starry-eyed lit student with an adult sense of awareness and maturity. And though Frances McDormand's Sara is less developed than she is in Chabon's novel, the economical actress manages to build a complete personality with relatively few words.

And words are the things that make Wonder Boys work. The film is not simply about writing, authors, and books; it feels and sounds like an unfolding novel. The slowly paced story allows its characters time to learn about themselves, and, in turn, teaches us a few things about ourselves. What could have been a boring exercise in midlife crisis-resolution is, instead, a carefully crafted exploration of human existence posing the questions: What do we do with our lives? What choices do we make? What matters to us most? Often, movies about creative people use "working" as a metaphor for living. But while many of these offerings fail to offer relevant truths about our universal experience, Wonder Boys is a film that actually does.

— MARY KALIN-CASEY