Picks and Pans Review: Wonder Boys

updated 03/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes

Featured attraction

Still hung over from the night before and dressed in a ratty pink chenille bathrobe, a college English professor (Douglas) sits down in his study, lights up the morning's first joint and rolls a sheet of paper into his electric typewriter to take yet another whack at finishing the novel he has been working on for seven years. He types in the page number: 2611.

If Douglas's middle-aged prof in this appealingly shaggy comedy set in Pittsburgh was once a boy wonder, that was a long time ago. Just as he is having trouble resolving where to take his book's characters, so too is he having a tough time figuring out where to go in his own life. Douglas needs to make some decisions, and pronto, because his wife has just left him, his married lover (McDormand) has announced she is pregnant with his baby, and his editor (Downey) has arrived from Manhattan expecting to see a completed manuscript.

Wonder Boys is director Curtis Hanson's follow-up to his sizzling 1997 film L.A. Confidential. It's a looser effort and, in its own amiable way, nearly as engaging. Based on a 1995 novel by Michael Chabon and deftly adapted to the screen by Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys), the movie gets the ennui and pretensions of campus life exactly right, from the overheated classrooms to the boring parties. What's particularly fun about Boys is that, other than having a pretty good suspicion where Douglas and McDormand will end up, one has no idea where the film is headed. How often does that happen in an era when most big Hollywood movies are as processed as Velveeta?

Douglas, finally freed from the polished hair and power suits that have encased him in recent movies, shambles slyly through his role here. Maguire is impressively creepy as Douglas's most gifted student, and McDormand, in a role one wishes were bigger, sweetly makes it clear that her patience with Douglas is wearing thin. (R)

Bottom Line: This academic comedy earns a B+

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