Wonder Boys works no great wonders here

I left Wonder Boys, a new film directed by Curtis Hanson from the satirical novel by Michael Chabon, thinking, “Well, they almost got it right. Almost. They were pretty close to capturing the novel, its subtleties blotted with wild humor, its uniquely rich portrait of life in a Pittsburgh university, the struggle for coherence in a drug-addled literary wasteland. But something, something pretty essential, seems to have been lost in the translation from book to screen.”

Not that I’ve read the book – though the movie, adapted by Steven Kloves, makes me feel like I’ve read it, albeit not very closely. Rather than embracing the parodic stereotypes of academic life – the one-hit wonder author Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) who just can’t find the heart of his second effort, the boy-genius James Leer (Tobey Maguire, Wonder Boy #2) who is an almost supernaturally brilliant author but just can’t communicate effectively with the outside world because he’s so weird, the budding co-ed Hannah Green (Katie Holmes, looking jail-baity and lion-cheeked as always) who pines for Professor Tripp – the movie mostly hints at them. There are some scenes of great humor in Wonder Boys, but more often than not the movie can’t handle its own quirkiness (or is it the novel’s quirkiness?), and at times veers dangerously from quirkiness into preciousness.

Curtis Hanson, whose last effort was the astounding L.A. Confidential, here tries on a much looser, more whimsical garment, complete with potheads and cross-dressers and Rip Torn (pretty much wasted as Q, the successful writer). But Hanson’s touch is often too deliberate, and sometimes just misguided. An example of the latter would be his choice of music, which is a combination of way-mellow “rock” tracks for baby-boomers (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, etc.) and a really terrible score using accordion and slap-bass: basically, it’s the kind of music that kills satire. His take on university life seems feasible but also hackneyed, as we’re placed from the outset in a dark classroom of prestigious oak and prestigious black clothing and prestigious scarves. The movie is too guarded, too worried about being slick while being goofy.

Still, there are some great, light performances, most notably from Robert Downey Jr. as Tripp’s gay editor Terry Crabtree (are you catching the names here?). Downey Jr. is possibly the only actor working today who can convincingly combine an inherent sleaziness with an inherent sweetness. He has a hard, overly charming crush on the 20 year-old James Leer, and he’s very desperate for new literary blood, but we never see him as a shark. As James Leer, Tobey Maguire gives the same super-subtle turn that he gave in Cider House Rules, an almost robotic performance that fits the role of boy-genius like a metal glove, but his interactions with Professor Tripp are usually boring where they want to be touching, tiring when they want to be cute and awkward.

Much of the movie’s humor relies on Michael Douglas, who as Tripp wears a pink bathrobe and drives an old stolen car and smokes lots and lots of dope. Unfortunately, he’s never really convincing as a writer. Something about the way he carries himself or his street-smart flippancy strikes me as patently un-academic, more like a stand-up comedian than a sit-down writer. His witty rapport with Maguire or Downey Jr. is calculated and artificially smug. Simply put, the role is miscast. Tripp’s best scenes are with the odd Chancellor Sara Gaskell (played by the always-solid Frances McDormand), because they center around secret love rather than wit (secret love is more Douglas’ domain).

And though the movie is the textbook definition of a “dud,” there are flights of wild inspiration: the image of a dead bulldog’s back after it’s been stuffed into Tripp’s car trunk; a short, odd-looking man named Vernon who accosts Tripp’s car by inexplicably denting it with his butt; and a hilarious trick shot that dwarfs Tripp under the transvestite Miss Sloviak, making Crabtree’s the mysteriously sexy pal look about four feet taller than she really is.

Unfortunately, though, Wonder Boys gives itself away as little more than an adaptation, both shabby and meticulous, with too much care put into it to be considered truly careless.