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'Wonder Boys' gets a second chance

(CNN) -- In a rare move, Paramount Pictures has re-released the critically acclaimed "Wonder Boys," rolling it out slowly throughout movie awards season, in hopes of garnering some nominations. The film, which stars Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire and Frances McDormand, earned only $18.7 million in its original release in February, despite earning some of the best reviews of the year.

Here is CNN.com's review of the movie, originally posted on March 6, 2000.

Review: 'Wonder Boys' a foray into desperation, deliverance
By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- In 1997, director Curtis Hanson unveiled "L.A. Confidential," arguably the greatest studio picture of the past decade. All gunplay and sharp edges, it's a classic of hardboiled Americana, the kind of movie that the film noir directors of the 1940s would have made had they not been so afraid of direct sunlight.

Nothing in Hanson's previous work suggested that he was capable of such a controlled, intense piece of filmmaking. "L.A. Confidential"'s dazzling notices (it was way too smart and inventive to make any money) unexpectedly turned Hanson into a heavyweight director after years of cranking out well-constructed time killers.

Hanson's new movie, "Wonder Boys," is a laid-back, funky retreat from "L.A. Confidential"'s almost analytical precision. It's an odd step at this point in his career, but a brave one.

The script (by Steve Kloves, who wrote and directed 1989's "The Fabulous Baker Boys") is brimming with life, passion, and thought-provoking themes.

Not all of it works. A couple of characters are introduced, then unceremoniously abandoned, and there's some business having to do with hiding a dead dog that gets old pretty quickly.

But this is a rich film with a lot more on its mind than you might expect given its inappropriately quirky marketing campaign. It always bodes well when Hollywood can't figure out how to shill something made by talented people.

A stalled novel, a stumbling life
Michael Douglas gives the performance of his career as Grady Tripp, a disheveled creative-writing professor at a small college in Pittsburgh. Seven years ago, Grady wrote a novel called "Arsonist's Daughter" that got rave reviews and earned him a cult following.

But his second book isn't going nearly so well. It's now 2,000 pages long, with no end in sight. Grady spends most of his free time drinking, popping pain killers and smoking joints to avoid the anguish of writing in circles.

His enthusiastically bisexual editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), has been patiently waiting for him to finish the book. But Terry now tells Grady that he may lose his job at the publishing house if a manuscript isn't turned in soon.

To top it all off, Grady's wife has just left him. And his married mistress, Sara (Frances McDormand), recently discovered that he's gotten her pregnant. No wonder he wants to numb himself.

Hannah and James -- sun and gloom
Most of the human contact that Grady suffers through comes courtesy of his dull, casually cruel students. The one ray of light in his class is Hannah (Katie Holmes), a talented young woman who also rents a room from him.

Grady has a secret crush on Hannah, and she absolutely adores his writing. Though she's the object of his fading ability to lust after anyone, he's never made a pass at her. Overwhelming weariness, rather than a sense of decency, keeps him away from her.

She is a gorgeous distraction, but another student will soon force Grady to take a hard look at the self-defeating cycle of despair that he now calls his life.

James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is as morbid as Hannah is sunny. The other students bitch about his endlessly depressing short stories, but Grady sees a spark of brilliance in them: The kid may actually be a writer.

Maguire finds a quiet humanity in the timid, gun-toting James that a lesser actor would have ignored in favor of gloomy shtick. He delivers a couple of hilariously morbid speeches, the best centering on movie stars who have committed suicide. James can name every actor who's ever done himself in; he even remembers their chosen technique and the date of their final curtain call. The list is surprisingly lengthy, by the way, and contains some very well-known names.

Grady and James converge, then careen recklessly through several days of drugging and lying to each other. Some of their escapades are too self-consciously wacky for their own good, but the mounting insanity is a rich breeding ground for poignant revelations. More than anything else, the story is about the curse of being able to invent your own reality.

The muse that wounds
James, in particular, spins crazy, interlocking tales about himself that turn out to be nothing but cheap fiction. Both he and Grady have been damaged by the very gift that gives their lives focus. Grady, however, is old enough to know better. It's that realization that finally enables him to take control of his life.

Douglas is simply spectacular. He hasn't exactly been mixing it up in recent years, playing one powerful master of the universe after another, but Grady is a complete reversal of that trend. He recognizes that he's heading toward a dead-end, but somehow still can't take his foot off the gas. Douglas can sit on a porch and stare at the sleet that's continually falling on the campus and convey more honest emotion than Kevin Costner manages with a five-minute soliloquy.

It's annoying when critics trumpet Oscar contenders in every other review, but you have to hope that voters remember this film when the nominations roll around again next year. It seems unlikely. The opening weekend grosses suggest there won't be an audience for a movie that's so fascinated with its characters' inner lives.

When it comes to laying blame, Americans much prefer pointing at somebody else. Given the route that most films take these days, it's amazing that James only uses that pistol on a dog.

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