At the time of its 1997 release, Curtis Hanson described L.A. Confidential as the first time he felt like a director rather than a director-for-hire. While Hanson was previously best known for slick thrillers such as The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, L.A. Confidential revealed a filmmaker capable of guiding an expansive cast of morally ambiguous characters through James Ellroy's labyrinthine tale of crime and corruption in '50s Los Angeles, combining the director's already apparent ability to handle suspense with something new. Though a different sort of film, Wonder Boys, an adaptation of Michael Chabon's novel, suggests that Hanson's deft handling of complex, compromised characters was no fluke. Michael Douglas stars as a once-successful novelist and professor of creative writing whose life, frequently lived through a pot-clouded haze, reaches a crisis point over the course of the school's annual weekend-long writers conference. His wife has left him, his married lover/chancellor (Frances McDormand) has just revealed her pregnancy, a student to whom he rents a room (Katie Holmes) seems interested in intensifying the student/teacher bond, and his editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town to check on the progress of a long-promised, long-delayed magnum opus. For Douglas, whose life seems to attract chaos, this might pass as business as usual were it not for the presence of a talented, enigmatic, possibly disturbed student (Tobey Maguire, especially good in a role that diverges from his past few characters) who, through a series of mishaps, entwines his life with Douglas'. An actor's dream, Hanson's leisurely but stylish direction allows his cast to deliver convincing, fleshed-out performances. The film both deserves and needs them; its situations often seem familiar—a midlife crisis, some business that wouldn't be out of place in a second-rate screwball comedy—but its generous approach makes everything seem fresh. The decision to film on location in Pittsburgh gives Wonder Boys a foundation that can't be faked, one suited to a film that brings to its implausible string of comic coincidences the ache of the real.

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