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Boys Night Out 

*Wonder Boys (R)
Paramount Pictures

Think of Wonder Boys as a day off, a lazy Sunday, a late Saturday breakfast, a nap in the late afternoon. That's the effect that director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) wrings from the material, adapted for the screen from Michael Chabon's novel.

Played with world-weariness and infectious lassitude, Michael Douglas is Grady Tripp, a vaguely tenured college professor who has done little since his first novel made it big besides smoking pot and pecking away at a ballooning manuscript he can't seem to end. His wife has left him on the morning when the film begins; and he has just found out his lover, also the chancellor of the university (Frances McDormand), also the wife of the chairman of the English department (Richard Thomas), is pregnant.

Add to that dysfunctional scenario, a truly dysfunctional student -- James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a brooding, budding writer who is also an artfully compulsive liar with a penchant for pistols -- and Grady's editor Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), desperate for a publishing success and a roll in the hay with young James. The result is a set-up for 24 deliriously dysfuntional hours in the company of Tripp and his cast of supporting characters, all trying to make sense of their lives while circumstances send them farther and farther into left field.

Wonder Boys is nowhere near the stylish masterpiece of Hanson's most famous work, but it is a droll, often hilarious good time at the movies, thanks in large part to the excellent cast. Except for the sell-out ending which was blissfully brief and can easily be overlooked, this is a remarkably deft look at middle-aged confusion and sedentary angst -- a subject rarely addressed in the cult of youth worship that usually dominates the big screen.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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