in the new movie from curtis hanson — a reworking of a novel light-years removed from L.A. Confidential, the director‘s last inspired adaptation — Michael Douglas plays a rumpled writing professor named Grady Tripp. A dedicated doper and inveterate lover of wrong women, Tripp is lazily, rather uneasily huddled in middle age after burning bright as a young novelist. In Michael Chabon’s admired if overamplified book, the professor is a big guy, and his fleshiness seems material evidence that he‘s stuck, like a bear in deep freeze. Douglas is too much of a star to have gone to hell for a role, but he’s let himself go pleasantly doughy, uncharacteristically, even freakishly cuddly. Rarely has the actor looked less pampered. There‘s nearly as much salt as pepper in his hair, and the stubble edging his face isn’t macho pretension, it‘s an outcrop of Tripp’s inertia, as well as a reminder of the character‘s narcissistic wallow. This is a man who invariably remembers to score but not to buy blades for his razor, which wouldn’t mean anything if he weren‘t also in love.

Tripp, whose third wife has left him the morning the story opens, is in love with Sara, a reasonable type, played by Frances McDormand, who’s both the college chancellor and married to Tripp‘s boss, the head of the English department (Richard Thomas). McDormand seems almost glamorous compared to Chabon’s portrait of this fugitive lover (the novel‘s Sara is “tall and busty, with a large behind”), but there’s something happily real about McDormand and her unapologetic, handsome looks. She actually seems to belong in a college shuffling papers and students. Her Sara is in love with Tripp, but the chancellor isn‘t failing at life, just treading water. It’s hard to know if she‘s waiting for him to get it together or fall apart, or is simply biding her time, waiting for a tree to crush her house, for her husband to drop dead of a heart attack — for something. As with all the other characters orbiting Tripp, her motivations remain opaque, unprocessed. The only thing that matters, that’s absolute, is that when she offers Grady her hard, steady stare, it‘s with as much love as reproach.

The film opens with Tripp in front of a black-board with lines from Ulysses scribbled over it, including, pointedly, the words “hideous night.” Tripp, who will soon embark on his own hideous night, a perilous, often comic voyage that finds him navigating between choice and indecision, is distractedly leading a discussion about a story written by James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a student whose talent and blood-chilling cool rub everyone, including his mentor, the wrong way. James is a wonder boy, but unlike Tripp, he’s just starting off on his grand adventure. Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) is still another of the story‘s wonder boys, a book editor who, with a careening transvestite in tow, is pinning his hopes and derailed career on Tripp’s unfinished opus, a 2,000-pages-and-counting manuscript. There‘s a wonder girl, too, though despite her Paris Review short stories she seems rather less than wonderful, mainly because the young actor Katie Holmes has neither Maguire’s innate spookiness nor Downey‘s genius for heartbreaking melancholia. There’s also the fact that no matter how ingenious the ingenue, this is a movie called Wonder Boys.

Those of us who were never wonder girls (funny how these two small words never muscled their way into the realm of idiom) should be forgiven for looking at Hanson‘s movie with a certain amount of skepticism. Wonder boys, after all, is a term freighted with meaning, much of which seems calculated to inspire impatience in the rest of us. Hollywood, in particular, never seems to tire of trumpeting or indulging its wonder boys, many of whom are forgiven their immaturity well past the age of reason. (Spielberg was a wonder boy until Schindler’s List; the well-ripened Lucas still is, or at least that‘s the excuse used to absolve his filmmaking.) The irony is that Hanson, a late bloomer behind the camera, could never have been dubbed anything like a proper wonder boy, which may explain why there’s more tenderness and kindness in this film than sentimentality; he‘s looking at it from the outside in. Hanson isn’t asking his audience to feel bad for Tripp, any more than he‘s soliciting pity for the film’s other bruised wonder boys, Leer and Crabtree. The director isn‘t pandering to middle-age narcissism, the way Pauline Kael once accused Mike Nichols of pandering to youthful narcissism in The Graduate. He’s laying it open, like a wound.

How Tripp licks his wound is fundamentally familiar — jealousy, death and divorce each have a turn. Wonder Boys isn‘t a great movie, and there are moments of broad, awkward comedy when it’s not even particularly good. But it‘s striking on several counts, including a rare sense of modesty and an even rarer sense that there is something at stake in telling the story of one man’s private torment. That‘s what makes the movie seem almost European, despite the belching Pittsburgh smokestacks. The film has impeccable technical credits; it was shot by Dante Spinotti, the cinematographer who lit L.A. Confidential as if he were a Renaissance master, and edited with ductile energy by veteran cutter Dede Allen. Still, what do you say about a movie that never reaches greatness, that isn’t even interested in reaching greatness — just in being consummately professional and full of heart? You say that it‘s good instead of good for you, and that no one — or hardly anyone — in American film is making movies about people who look and feel like us. Only toward the end of Wonder Boys does the whole thing begin to feel suspiciously like one of those exercises in healing in which the lead character wises or grows up, forfeiting youthful folly for something like maturity. The last bit borders on the insufferable, even smug, though it’s true enough to the original book. Then again, it seems churlish to begrudge a fictional character what we might wish for ourselves.

A young friend calls Wonder Boys a middle-aged-man movie, and it‘s easy to see her point. The soundtrack features songs by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, midlife droners all, and the story turns on a 50-year-old’s crises of faith — in himself, in his work, in his capacity to love. Yet it‘s hard to think of another recent American movie that approaches this kind of man and these sorts of failings with such empathy; with what, in other contexts, might be called soul — if the idea of Michael Douglas and soul didn’t sound nonsensical. But there is something undeniably soulful in this film, in the way Tripp verges on farce yet retains his dignity, like the bluesman who shoots his woman‘s dog, then runs from her, her man and the law, and still manages to squeeze out the right grace note. And while Tripp is absurd, whether lighting a joint while wrapped in ratty pink chenille or shaking a blind hound off his ankle, he’s unmistakable, recognizable. If nothing else, Hanson, Chabon and the talented screenwriter Steve Kloves, whose tempered adaptation often improves on the novel, want to persuade us of the beingness, the stubborn passion, that makes Tripp ridiculous and true. It‘s no small thing that, for the most part, they succeed.

In the new movie from Curtis Hans

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