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The overused coming-of-age premise gets a delectable and quirky reworking in "Wonder Boys."

"Boys" to Men

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At the start of his career in the early '90s, director Curtis Hanson made his mark in popular but second-tier assignments on movies such as "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" and "The River Wild." But all that changed in 1997 when Hanson delivered the stylishly noir "L.A. Confidential." Winning both critical and box office success, "L.A. Confidential" earned several Oscars and shot Hanson into the ranks of directors to watch. Everyone wondered with anticipation what his next project would be. Now, three years later, that project is here. Although "Wonder Boys" takes a complete 180 from its moody, period-perfect predecessor, its pleasures are many.

A sort-of screwed-up screwball comedy with heart, "Wonder Boys" takes a tried-and-true Hollywood premise and sets it delightfully on its ear. The movie may look like just another reworking of the older-but-wiser teacher turned father-figure who both teaches and learns from his favorite student, but thanks to writer Steve Kloves (the man behind "The Fabulous Baker Boys") and a terrific cast, "Wonder Boys" is fresh, funny and ultimately moving.

In perhaps his best performance to date, Michael Douglas (looking bloated and unkempt) brings the character of Grady Tripp to life with unabashed authenticity. While he earns a living going through the motions of teaching writing at an unnamed Pittsburgh college, Tripp spends his free time working on a novel. Not just any novel, but the long-awaited, follow-up to his critically acclaimed first book. One can see why director Hanson would be drawn to such a struggle.

When we first meet Professor Tripp, he can't seem to find a way to end his novel, which already spans 2,611 pages. The home front isn't in much better shape; his younger second wife has just left him. It's also the start of "Word Fest" on campus, and that means literary agents and other more prolific writers will be on hand to ask about his follow-up. About as politically incorrect a role model as Hanson and Kloves could create, Tripp not only lights up a joint whenever the mood strikes him, but he's also sleeping with the school chancellor (another terrific turn from "Fargo's" Frances McDormand). While that seems sticky enough on its own, add these two facts into the Tripp equation — McDormand's husband (Richard Thomas) is head of the English department, and she's pregnant. Guess who the proud papa-to-be is?

Adding to the human comedy is Robert Downey Jr., Tripp's literary agent and something of a creative predator. When he hits town, Tripp's life, career and future are at the critical mass stage. That's when Tripp turns his attention to the talented but brooding young student, James Leer (Tobey Maguire). In what must be the most monumental manner to avoid everything else pressing in his life, Tripp decides this is the time to take James under his wing and help him. As is the case in both life and screwball comedies with an eye toward poignancy, things get much worse before they get better.

Although "Wonder Boys" is certainly not as accomplished an effort as "L.A. Confidential," it is hugely entertaining. Particularly for those who remember their college writing professors swaddled in their rumpled eccentricities and well-worn tweeds and turtlenecks. While Maguire is purposefully brooding and unemotional, he never makes quite the impression he should. McDormand on the other hand, just gets better and better. No nonsense as always, her acting has a bareness to it that is both achingly vulnerable and empowering. Much of the credit for this movie should go to both Kloves (for creating such vivid characters from Michael Chabon's novel of the same name) and to cinematographer Dante Spinotti (the winter scenes are breathtaking in a quiet, somber way).

Ironic, screwy and cumulatively poignant, "Wonder Boys" is full of singular, albeit small, pleasures.

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