Look at Grady Tripp and tell me he’s not tripping all over his life. His hair is unkempt, his glasses droop low, and his eyes are exhaustedly awake. His stance is uneven. His leg is wounded; he drags it as he scrambles from one problem to another. Would you have guessed that such messy manifestation is of a Michael-Douglasy literatus?

Our main man, Grady, is a Writing professor. He wrote the syllabus-worthy novel “The Arsonist’s Daughter.” His follow-up book, meanwhile, is still to follow; it’s still being written, seven years and counting. His editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) pays a visit to check out the work-in-progress, but Grady is very protective. He says he needed more time to polish it up. But where oh where will he find the time? Lately, he has been dealt with a troubling series of incidents: his young wife is gone, his mistress (Frances McDormand) is pregnant, his spooky student (Tobey MaGuire) shoots and steals, and his car trunk conceals one sightless corpse.

Crazy, huh? Wouldn’t you like to know what story lies behind each incident? The beauty of “Wonder Boys” is that it sparks one’s sense of wonder and curiosity. When I say wonder, I didn’t mean it in a CGI-y way. I meant wonder as in speculating tales behind real-life oddities. Indeed, the movie is scattered with oddities (whether they be objects, people, or events) which incite a rub-your-chin story pondering. By cranking up our curiosity, the movie, in effect, positions us inside a writer’s frame of mind. We, people of low-falutin language, might not be as skilled in writing, but we can relate to their inquisitiveness.

However, if you’re a laid-back thinker, accustomed to shallow entertainment, then this movie is not for you. I hope that’s not how most people are, but I won’t be surprised if that’s the case. I love both movies and novels, mainly because I gravitate towards great storytelling. But I can see why people would prefer cinema by a mile; it’s an easier road. You don’t have to imagine anything and it’s done in a few hours. Books take more work and patience. “Books,” as one disheartened movie-character claims, “They don’t mean a thing for anybody.” Optimistically, the movie rallies against this cry. All the major characters worship the printed word so much; they’re willing to inscribe their inerasable hope on it. Literature has the power to impart truth, a deep unrealized reality that touches and connects us all.

To me, the agents of these truths are the titular characters. In the movie, they’re Grady and James Leer, the aforementioned spooky student. These “wonder boys” (sounds superhero-ish, no?) are both strong writers. They wield a pen (aka imagination) that is, as they say, mightier than the sword. However, their skills come across as tragic sometimes. The mysterious James is hardly grounded; he often acts out in his own distorted reality. The professor, meanwhile, contorts his improv knack into a curse. Just because you can wing your way out of trouble doesn’t mean you should get into more troubles. Look, curiosity is a good thing; it awakens the mind, it puts boredom to sleep. But if you’ve got too much of a good thing, just remember who killed the cat.

Grade: A-

Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Rip Torn, and Robert Downey Jr.
Based on the novel by
Michael Chabon
Screenplay by
Steven Kloves
Directed by
Curtis Hanson
Rated R for language and drug content