Despite the success of LA Confidential, director Curtis Hanson couldn't prevent this odd little encore from flopping Stateside. But defiant distributor Paramount is re-releasing Wonder Boys over there (Oscars in mind?) and it's a wise move, because Hanson's funny, free-wheeling spin on Michael Chabon's novel dangles on the same family tree as the likes of Rushmore and American Beauty thanks to its curious, cross-generational bonding antics and faith in people at their most affably mixed-up.
Maybe it bombed because, in its undemonstrative way, it's not typical Hollywood fare. Sure, it's a rites-of-passage tale. But its unlikely hero is less Tobey Maguire's Leer than Michael Douglas' Tripp, a jaded, 50-ish academic who puffs too much weed and has more issues than his students. And, while the ramshackle plot finds room for a dead dog, a stolen car, some mightily potent painkillers and a bonkers Little Richard lookalike in its comedy of errors, Hanson's direction and Steve Klove's crisp script keep it clear of crass hysterics - for most of the running time, at least.
But it's a character-driven deal, and the cast steal it. Maguire nails the oddball precocity of Leer, Robert Downey Jr acts-up a treat as Tripp's gay editor, and Katie Holmes smartly ditches the teeny fare as Tripp's student and lodger. As for Douglas, he manages to be likeable by dropping his "bad man" schtick to look every second of a dishevelled 50. He even has a credible romance with a woman roughly his own age (the excellent Frances McDormand), and you don't often get that in Hollywood.
Granted, the finale is a downer, turning to silly farce before tidying everything up neatly with a few cheesy homilies about "finding yourself". But the rest treats its messed-up characters with such clear-sighted affection, and so little sentiment, it's tough to begrudge them some kind of happy ending.
Hanson's bittersweet comedy proves winning for its warts-and-all characters, warmth and skew-whiff good humour. The ending is badly judged, and does the characters no justice, but superb acting on the ambling trip there just about compensates.