"Wonder Boys" is a film that sits there and begs to be loved, but then forgets to give us anything to love it for. Based on the novel by Michael Chabon, with a script by Steve Kloves ("The Fabulous Baker Boys"), and directed by Curtis Hanson (his first film since "L.A. Confidential"), "Wonder Boys" is the story of a very hectic weekend in the life of Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), a fiftyish professor of creative writing at an unnamed university in Pittsburgh.
In the course of the weekend, Grady's wife will leave him -- in fact she has left him just before the film opens -- his longtime secret lover, the school's chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), who is married to Grady's department chair, will announce that she is pregnant by Grady; his prize student James Leer (Tobey Maguire, doing much better here than he did in "The Cider House Rules") will cause great havoc, including shooting Sara's husband's blind dog and stealing his Marilyn Monroe memorabilia; and his editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey, Jr.) will arrive from New York with a very tall transvestite in tow, in search of Grady's next novel, but who will settle for a quickie with James instead.
All this mishagoss has the makings of either a) a wonderful screwball comedy, or b) a tormented Bergmanesque midlife crisis. Unfortunately, no one seems able to decide which way to go, and so the film has the dull, muttered feel of an old record with the high notes almost inaudible. The three corners of the piece -- Grady, James, and Sara -- should bounce off each other as they move back and forth through the weekend, during which the college is hosting a major literary event, called WordFest.
WordFest's invited celebrity is a novelist famous for turning out a bestselling novel every 18 months, which could be the running gag of the film if it played against Grady's inability to finish his own 7-year-old work, now up to 2,116 single-spaced pages, but neither Kloves nor Hanson makes any real use of it. Grady keeps himself stoned every waking moment (young James sniffs a joint and instantly identifies it as 'Humboldt County'), but little is made of it; and young James presents an almost catatonic persona, so that when the two are together, which is a great deal of the time, very little goes on. The two of them are too much alike and simply don't strike sparks.
The dialogue, which perhaps sounded antic on the printed page, comes across here as obvious and shallow, underwritten but overloaded with portent. We never learn, for example, just who the 'Wonder Boys' are supposed to be, nor why it's the title of the book and film. Every scene gives itself away in the first few moments; all but a few are constructed like little tableaux instead of catching us up with surprise or at least spontaneity.
And there's a disappointment in the pacing as well. The film was edited by the legendary DeDe Allen (a long list of classic films, including "Bonnie & Clyde," "Serpico," "Reds," and "The Breakfast Club" among others), but scene after scene languishes while we wait for something to happen. Only Downey comes close to giving the film a jolt of energy, playing a deliciously amoral figure for whom nothing is too difficult to be dealt with, and no pleasure too small to be enjoyed. But he is not on screen enough to make a difference.
One other point, and it is very much in the film's favor: We can take great satisfaction from the fact that the film deals with sex, gay or straight, without making any fuss or points about it. It simply says that sex is sex, to be taken and enjoyed as the partners wish.