If "Wonder Boys" is to be a hit at all -- and it deserves to be -- it's going to have to be a word of mouth hit, because the marketing for this movie stinks.
The poster is a homely, dueling-airbrushes disaster. The commercials and trailers don't capture a fraction the movie's antic character. As near as I can figure, the insipid title has nothing to do with the story -- about a benevolent, crusty college professor whose life is turned amusingly upside-down in a single weekend.
I suspect that, except for those who have read the Michael Chabon novel or have a particular penchant for one of the perfectly-cast players, most folks won't be feeling much of a jones to see it.
And that's a shame because "Wonder Boys" is an effortlessly off-kilter comedy with an impeccable cinema pedigree that serves its quirky story well.
Michael Douglas -- graduating gracefully and comically from long-flagging stud-dom into a comfortable, frumpy middle-aged role -- stars as Grady Tripp, a once-bohemian Pittsburgh prof at a crossroads in his life where habitually eluding responsibility just isn't going to cut it anymore.
The author of a best-seller some seven years ago, his entertaining troubles start with the arrival of his trenchant editor (Robert Downey, Jr), who has come to camp out on Grady's couch until he coughs up a rough draft of his long-overdue second novel. Grady is trying to keep him at bay because he doesn't want to admit the book has become a 2,600-page, stream-of-consciousness monster.
The book business is just the beginning of a storm of awkward situations that pile up on him in a matter of days.
He's impregnated the chancellor (Frances McDormand), whose husband is his boss. His oddest student -- an introverted, emotionally stunted author-prodigy played by Tobey Maguire (in an ideal role for his deadpan demeanor) -- has attached himself to Grady and opened up in a burst of personal history that may be just his creativity run amok.
And before long he's contending with a dead dog, a tuba, a stolen car, a transvestite Downey picked up on the plane, and the romantic advances of an innocently sexy student (Katie Holmes) who rents a room in his house and would gladly crawl into the side of his bed recently vacated by much-younger wife number three.
Directed by "L.A. Confidential" helmer Curtis Hanson (who brought with him production designer Jeannine Oppenwall and cinematographer Dante Spinotti), "Wonder Boys" is a buoyant, comic collision of peculiarly congruous characters -- well-drawn by this cast that's really on its game -- and great little touches of winking absurdity.
The screenplay (by Steve Kloves, "The Fabulous Baker Boys") is full of funny swipes at academic intelligentsia and other punchy asides as it weaves Grady into escalating, but never implausible, messes.
In the first pure comedy of his career, Douglas is game for it all. Gray and unshaven, with reading glassed perched precariously on his nose, he strikes an ideally eccentric chord that carries the spirit of the movie as Grady is unceremoniously catapulted out of his elongated rut. Just seeing him in ratty bathrobe and knit cap while sneaking a morning joint gets a robust round of laughs.
No one can say if Curtis Hanson has another "L.A. Confidential" in him (his earlier movies have all been of the well-financed but B-grade variety). But if by some miracle audiences do turn out for "Wonder Boys," he certainly could have a future as the director of droll social parodies.