Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is Peter Pan with tenure, a grizzled, paunchy English professor who – instead of leading the lost boys on new adventures – scans his creative writing workshop for the next "wonder boys," young novelists headed for the literary stardom he once enjoyed.
Wonder Boys opens on a seemingly typical Friday in Grady’s classroom, but things are far from normal. The literary establishment is descending on the university for WordFest, which means the arrival of Q (Rip Torn), a prolific, smug, best-selling author who embodies Grady’s thwarted ambitions. It also means a visit from his editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), whose own career is on a downward trajectory and who’s counting a little too much on Grady’s long-anticipated new novel to restore his own reputation.
Meanwhile, the latest Mrs. Tripp has left him; Grady’s married lover, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), tells him he’s going to be a father (a situation complicated by sticky university politics); and one of his best students, the accomplished and self-possessed Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), reveals her schoolgirl crush.
But it’s another student, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), who ends up commanding Grady’s attention. A sullen social misfit, James is either a born storyteller or pathological liar, possibly both. He leads the professor on a picaresque journey through Pittsburgh and frees Grady’s fertile imagination, which has been held hostage by the albatross of his massive, unfinished novel.
Screenwriter Steve Kloves (Flesh and Bone) has mined the humor in Michael Chabon’s wry novel of self-indulgence, and director Curtis Hanson lets the comedy emerge organically from the characters’ massive self-absorption. These actors (particularly Downey and McDormand) have rarely been better, but Douglas is remarkable as a man who wakes up in that special corner of hell reserved for people who can’t commit and must find his way home.
Grady Tripp may be a failure at success, but he becomes a success in failure.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.