The movie camera is an ageist. It does not care for mature flesh. It ruthlessly exposes the ordinary battle scars of middle-aged actors: the liver spots, the chest freckles, the once taut skin that now hangs like crepe. No wonder American film worships youth. Kids are not only its target audience; they are also its most photogenic subculture.
So it is almost brave of Michael Douglas, 55, to play a college professor who looks his age--and feels it. After a decade or so as the suave (or slimy) manipulator dodging a comeuppance from a strong (or psychotic) woman, Douglas renounces sexual energy and latches on to a kind of emotional ennui. In Wonder Boys he's unshaven, bespectacled Grady Tripp, who wrote an acclaimed novel years ago but has been marking time ever since. While working on his next book (he's up to page 2,613), he teaches the creative writing he may no longer be capable of and carries on a tryst with the dean's wife (Frances McDormand). As someone says, "His heart kept beating only out of habit." Grady is the one thing a Hollywood hero is never allowed to be: tired.
Michael Chabon's source novel was a wry comedy that focused on the college's elders. The screenplay, by Steve Kloves, genuflects to the camera's love of young faces and promotes Grady's best student (Katie Holmes) and his weirdest (Tobey Maguire) to lead roles. But the pulse of Curtis Hanson's direction is lethargic; the comic bits are so slack and deadpan you could mistake the film for an earnest drama--an Afterschool Special for troubled kids and their pooped parents.
Wonder Boys reminds us of a distant age (the '70s) when bad movies were better: not stupid teen romps but sad, off-kilter studies of adults adrift. It is a rare current example of that endangered species, the honorable failure.
--By Richard Corliss