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Wonder Boys

Quiet desperation, academic back-biting and suicidal despair are made simultaneously funny and utterly believable in novelist Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, which screenwriter Steven Kloves and director Curtis Hanson have translated to film with its sly sense of humor and sharply telling details intact. Fabulously acted and gleefully sardonic, it's a darkly comic coming-of-age story in which a college student and a middle-aged professor stumble through a series of loopy rites of passage together. One-time wunderkinder Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is terrified that he's a one-hit wonder; his first novel was a huge success, but his second manuscript — seven years (and counting) in the making — has ballooned to War and Peace proportions, with no end in sight. While working on the magnum opus, Grady has gotten married, secured a post teaching writing at a small Pittsburgh college, embarked on an affair with colleague Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) — inconveniently enough, her husband, Walter (Richard Thomas), chairs the English department — and smoked a lot of dope. Grady's troubles multiply during the school's "Wordfest" weekend. His wife decamps, his agent (Robert Downey Jr.) arrives to nag about the accursed book, Sara announces she's pregnant, and morbid but hugely talented student James Leer (Tobey Maguire) turns up at a faculty-student shindig swearing the gun in his pocket is a toy until the moment he kills Walter's dog with it. Grady and James embark on a road trip of sorts (they don't get far, but log a lot of time in the car) and their joint misadventures — no pun intended — are both poignant and surprisingly entertaining. Maguire and Douglas are extraordinary (though Douglas feels a little old for his role, which seems to have been written for a man in his early 40s); even Downey Jr. delivers a sharp, understated performance.