Two noted directors are trying different strategies in their latest bids for attention.
Curtis Hanson, best known for the sprawling crime saga "L.A. Confidential," moves to territory that's less violent - if still pretty unsavory - in "Wonder Boys," with superstar Michael Douglas as a professor and rising star Tobey Maguire as a troubled but talented student.
John Frankenheimer, whose hits range from "Seconds" to "The Manchurian Candidate," sticks with tried-and-true thriller material in "Reindeer Games," featuring Ben Affleck as an ex-con and Charlize Theron as his girlfriend.
The title characters of Wonder Boys are writers at opposite ends of their careers. Douglas plays Grady, who's been coasting on the success of his first novel, earning his living as a professor while he inches along with a follow-up book. Maguire plays James, a moody twentysomething whose novelistic fantasies are matched by the lies he spins about his real-life background.
The movie brings the two together during Wordfest, an annual literary event at their university. Since few real professors would remain glued to such an irritating protg for an entire weekend, Steven Kloves's screenplay (based on Michael Chabon's novel) supplies a few strained reasons for their relationship, including their shared interest in a flamboyant book editor (Robert Downey Jr.) and a darkly comic situation involving an unfriendly dog.
Others include a visiting writ-er whose ego matches his success (Rip Torn) and a college official (Frances McDormand) who's having an affair with Grady.
They're a colorful group, as campus characters go. Still, director Hanson never quite convinces us that their oddly lackadaisical antics are worth watching for almost two hours. Douglas's performance marks a welcome change from the supercharged emotions of pictures like "Basic Instinct," but it's undercut by Maguire's deliberately mannered acting, which seems repetitious from one movie to the next. The film's biggest problem is its lack of psychological logic. Motivations seem dictated by plot necessities rather than human needs, and that's a fatal flaw.
The story of Reindeer Games is so implausible that "Wonder Boys" seems downright common-sensical by comparison. Affleck plays a freshly released jailbird determined to go straight until he meets the girlfriend of a former cellmate - and her psychopathic brother, who's engineering a robbery.
All this gets established in the first few scenes, whereupon the movie swoops into plot maneuvers that twist your expectations into two or three pretzels before the closing credits. There are dabs of sugary sentiment, probably added when Miramax anticipated a Christmastime release.
What you're likely to remember is neither the sentiment nor the suspense, but rather the sadistic violence that erupts almost every time Gary Sinise's chief villain walks into a scene.
It's regrettable - and revealing about Hollywood's priorities - that a director of Frankenheimer's stature still has to sustain his career via frenetic shoot-outs, exploding cars, and grisly deaths. He deserves better material. So does his audience.
* 'Wonder Boys,' rated R, contains sex, vulgar language, and drug use. 'Reindeer Games,' rated R, contains sex, nudity, vulgar language, and much explicit mayhem.
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