Although set in the unfashionable world of academia, Wonder Boys is an unexpectedly winning movie that deals with real people and recognizable problems in an honest, entertaining manner. Marked by a smart, disciplined performance by Michael Douglas, and by an unusually astute production, the movie should find both critical and commercial success.

The story opens as a weekend literary festival, 'Wordfest,' unfolds on a Pittsburgh college campus. Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), first seen conducting a creative-writing class, has been coasting on the success of his novel, The Arsonist's Daughter. But that was seven years ago, and Tripp hasn't been able to complete anything since. The rest of his life is a shambles. Tripp's wife Emily left him that morning, his mistress Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) is pregnant, and his editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey, Jr.), has arrived from New York to read his new novel. Then there are his fainting spells. Before the weekend is over, Tripp could lose everything he values in life.

It takes another wonder boy-suicidal student James Leer (Tobey Maguire)-to shake Tripp out of his downward spiral. Encountering him at a faculty party hosted by his boss (and Sara's husband) Walter Gaskell (Richard Thomas), Tripp pulls Leer aside to see a treasure locked in Walter's closet safe: a jacket Marilyn Monroe wore on the day she married Joe DiMaggio. The jacket, and an attack by Walter's dog Poe, will go on to play a crucial role in determining Tripp's fate.

Over two eventful days, Tripp tries to salvage his life while helping Leer as well. Faced with minor catastrophes like a stolen car or a missing shoulder bag, Tripp still has to answer the unresolved questions in his life. Should he ask Sara to get an abortion? And what about his new novel, now over 2,600 pages and counting?

Douglas, in recent years trapped in grim, humorless roles, seems inspired by Tripp. Unshaven, bleary-eyed, often dressed in a ridiculous purple bathrobe, he avoids the winks and nods that would signal to audiences not to take him too seriously. Douglas isn't afraid to show the desperation in Tripp's eyes, or the growing realization that his whole life may be a sham. He still captures the talent and drive at the heart of Tripp's character. It's a return to the challenges of his earlier work, and a performance that provides a solid anchor for the rest of the film.

As the talented but troubled Leer, the likeable Maguire continues his string of measured, thoughtful performances. He makes his character's turmoil not only believable, but logical. The rest of the cast is outstanding. McDormand finds both the humor and exasperation in her role, turning what could have been a hackneyed part into something memorable. Holmes shows great restraint as a sexy coed, while Downey is charming as an untrustworthy editor.

Working from an adroit screenplay by Steve Kloves, director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) has fashioned an unusually generous movie. Every major character faces humiliation at one point or another, yet each one is given the chance to improve from the experience. Even the ostensible villains are allowed to explain themselves. And the film somehow manages to make writing and teaching look romantic-even in a dismal Pittsburgh winter. Wonder Boys provides the sort of rich, fully rounded entertainment that is getting hard to find on screen today.

--Daniel Eagan