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by: James Berardinelli

Back in mid-'90s, director Curtis Hanson was known as a B-list filmmaker - someone who could cull a fair amount of tension out of workmanlike stories such as The Hand That Rocked the Cradle and The River Wild. All of that changed in 1997, however, when Hanson helmed L.A. Confidential. The film became an instant critical success, and Hanson was elevated to the level of a director whose next effort was anticipated. Now, three years later, that "next effort" has arrived, and it's a far different creature than its moody, atmospheric predecessor. Due in large part to the contribution of veteran cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Wonder Boys looks as good as L.A. Confidential (the winterscapes in this film are breathtakingly beautiful), but there's nothing noir-ish about this genial dramatic comedy.

Wonder Boys uses a standard premise - the older, wiser father figure who both teaches and learns from his protégé - as a starting-off point. While it's true that familiarity can breed contempt, and too many movies of this sort veer into overly-sentimental melodrama, Wonder Boys manages to keep audiences involved despite its less-than-original underlying idea. There are two obvious reasons for this. The first is tone - the film successfully shifts from comedy to poignancy without the awkwardness that often mars such transitions, and it never goes overboard in either category. The second is characters. The men and women inhabiting this film feel like real people, not recycled caricatures from other, similar motion pictures.

Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas, looking worn out and unkempt) is a celebrated English professor at a small university. Once upon a time, Grady was regarded as a literary luminary, but it has been seven years since his critically acclaimed Arsonist's Daughter was published. His editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) is itching to release the much anticipated follow-up, but the author keeps putting him off. It isn't that Grady is suffering from writer's block, but he can't figure out how to end his lastest novel - an epic endeavor that is at least twice the length of War & Peace. Meanwhile, Grady's personal life is a mess. His wife has left him. His married girlfriend, Sarah Gaskell (Frances McDormand), who also happens to be the college's chancellor, is pregnant with his child. And a student named Hannah (Katie Holmes), who rents a room in his house, has a huge crush on him. Then there's the strange case of James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a brooding young man with unlimited writing potential. Grady decides to take James under his wing and teach him a little about life. The experience turns out to be much different than Grady anticipated.

Wonder Boys is about the relationship between Grady and James, and the importance of storytelling to both of them. The film's other characters are secondary, and often serve little purpose beyond acting as catalysts. In fact, Grady's wife is so unimportant that she never makes an appearance in the flesh (although we do catch a glimpse of her in a photograph). Wonder Boys explores themes that most of us can relate to: chasing the dreams of youth, taking risks and making a commitment, and finding and pursuing something of meaning.

In addition to using it as a symbol, Wonder Boys has a fair amount to say about the craft of writing. The movie takes place against the backdrop of the school's annual "Wordfest", a gathering of world-renowned writers. Grady's life is defined by his writing, but he has lost his zest for it. With glum cynicism, he takes a look at today's society and comments, "Books don't mean anything - not anymore." When he speaks those words, he is like a once devout man who has lost his faith. His current opus turns out to be hollow and shallow despite its great length. Even the adoring Hannah recognizes that it is written without passion. An


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