Michael Douglas’ performance in Wonder Boys is being talked about as a stretch, but it’s the kind of stretch you indulge in after a good night’s sleep. Usually coiled, tense, and angry (I once wrote that he “has always seemed the least relaxed of actors”), Douglas lets himself go to pot — literally — as Grady Tripp, English professor, respected author of one novel and frustrated writer of its belated follow-up. Grady shuffles through his days, a fiftyish man both tired of his rut and too comfortable in it to do much about it; he finds a kind gesture for almost everyone except himself.
Grady meanders along, more or less amiably, and the movie follows his lead. Wonder Boys was adapted from Michael Chabon’s novel by screenwriter Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys), who understands baby-boomer melancholy but doesn’t make the mistake of treating it too seriously; at times, Grady is like a big kid, lost inside baggy clothes and smoking weed on his porch. Director Curtis Hanson, whose last film was the hair-trigger epic L.A. Confidential, seems to relax and breathe in Grady’s academic world; having shown his aptitude at two very different character studies, Hanson should never go back to formulaic thrillers like The River Wild and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. It’s as if he’d discovered the pleasures of people.
These people, indeed, are made realistic enough that even the most absurd situations don’t push the movie overboard. Grady takes an interest in a talented young writer in his class, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a morbid kid with a natural, spontaneous gift for making things up. James respects Grady but doesn’t idolize him or want to be him — he’s not your usual clichéd protege. James, who can rattle off celebrity suicides in alphabetical order, is also of uncertain sexuality; he’s more interested in Grady’s omnisexual editor Terry (Robert Downey Jr., blossoming in this easygoing atmosphere) than in Grady’s other star student (Katie Holmes).
Wonder Boys has a pleasant improvisatory feel — it’s as if Grady and James were collaborating on the story we’re watching. Hanson finds just the right tone for each scene, whether a bitter exchange between Grady and his pregnant lover Sara (Frances McDormand) or a touch of slapstick involving a blind dog. Though it’s ostensibly set in Pittsburgh, I read it as a New England movie in essence, with its constant rain and snow and fatalism. The movie is also generous-hearted towards everyone, even Sara’s dippy, DiMaggio-obsessed husband (Richard Thomas). When Terry visits Grady, accompanied by an extremely tall crossdresser, some of the audience inevitably titters, but Grady treats the crossdresser with as much casual respect as he does anyone else, and they have a nice, useful chat later in the movie.
I suppose the simplistic way to view Douglas’ switcheroo here is that in past movies, he has specialized in showing us the loser — the amoral, lustful weakling — inside the winner; here, he does the opposite. He allows Grady a certain sad, rumpled dignity without bending over backwards to make him noble. Those who find Douglas an arrogant actor may simply be responding to a great actor who has played arrogant men effectively. There’s no arrogance in Grady, and none in the movie, either. Wonder Boys even makes room for a character Grady “creates” — a man he spots across a bar and idly fictionalizes — who comes back to haunt him, but then turns out to be a decent man who accidentally drives Grady to his final epiphany. This outwardly gloomy movie is as gentle and pleasant a film as we’re likely to get from a major studio this year.