Director Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”) transforms Michael Chabon’s oddball story into a gently memorable film. Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is a stoned-out English professor and writer who is much the worse for middle age. His latest book is stalled. His wife has left him (divorce no. 3). He shares a house with live-in student Hannah Green (Katie Holmes). Most important, he finds himself drawn into the zany life of one James Leer (Toby McGuire), a talented young writer who is also his student.
This is a hilarious campus-life movie that uncorks slowly: Douglas and McGuire (both exceptional) revel in the exasperation of their respective tribulations. Robert Downey Jr. enters the fray as Tripp’s publisher, Terry Crabtree, and steals stretches of the movie. Then there’s Frances McDormand as the college chancellor (Tripp is sleeping with her), another dead-on choice. Hanson intercedes to mix the poised with the screwball, an accomplishment on the order of seeing a comet. All hail.