by Greg Muskewitz
A lot of times you can call certain movies predictable because the filmmakers have laid all their cards out on the table, and do nothing to try and tell a different story from the next. But on occasion, you will see a movie, that, although it is laying all its cards on the table, it isn't so much predictable as it is true to life. Finding Forrester is one of those movies that you see everything coming miles ahead, the false accusation of plagiarism, the vindication against the jealous pedantic professor, etc., and those things don't hurt the movie. Not even Gus Van Sant's cocky, and still amateur direction make it falter nearly as much as the cursory factitiousness of the knowledge on which it acts like it knows what it's talking about: the writing. It is not so much that Mike Rich's script is bad, as it is a poseur, a fraud in the deemed subject the movie.He throws around lippy references and quotes by Kesey, Kierkegaard, Joyce, Kipling, Chekov, Dickens, etc., but the movie, which should be a writer's movie, after all, the art of writing is one of its main celebrations, clearly keeps any real prose from gracing our eyes and ears. However, it still manages to slide by because of two good protagonists, and an overall good message. And there is that feeling of reward noticeable throughout.
"Not the 'write' movie, but still a good one."
Rob Brown is Jamal, a black kid from the Bronx. He's smart, but his interest isn't really in school. "Basketball is where he gets his acceptance. The kids don't care what he puts down on paper." Extremely gifted in both areas, academically and extra-curricularly, so when he scores real well on a city or nationwide test, his school officials are contacted by a very renowned and respected private school to have him transferred there. At that school, he will be given the proper challenges and help for his scholastic work, while playing on their highly regarded varsity basketball team.
Around the same time, he has a kind of "chance encounter" with a hermitic old man (Sean Connery) who no sooner turns out to be William Forrester, "one of the greatest authors (of a solo book) ever." In other words, a wonder boy. Forrester goes through one of Jamal's notebooks and marks it up with commentary ("constipated thinking," "where are you taking me here?"), but it is inasmuch a mentorship as it thickens to a prepping of his protégé. They meet in clandestine, and both are rewarded in different ways.
The main, obvious challenge in Finding Forrester comes when Jamal's pedagogical professor, Crawford (F. Murray Abraham) is so weary and jealous of his writing skills, that he must investigate and create problems for the sang-froid Jamal.
As far as writer's movies, this year we've seen it all, from Wonder Boys to Almost Famous, State and Main and Quills. I would say that this was one of the better, at least compared to Wonder Boys and Quills, the former of which was pretentious and full of itself, while the latter was more concerned with the pornographic and edge-pushing. Rich is definitely not able to create any prose that is worth our time, because Finding Forrester pulls a Henry Fool. In Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, the novelty idea behind it was that the main character had written a story that absolutely shocked and disgusted some readers, while all the rest that read it, had their lives changed, and the fact that we never got to hear any of it read, or see it for ourselves. The movie and to be strong on its own, and clever to pull it off, but the story and message that showed what Henry Fool really was about made it unnecessary to find out what was in that story. Finding Forrester tries to do the same thing, because after all, Rich couldn't even give us a decent letter for Forrester to read to the group of students he appealed to. Instead, as an immature directorial cop-out, Van Sant cuts to that over-glorified, falsely inspiring music that drowns it all out. They keep all of the literature hidden and out of sight, because the ideals they prophesize aren't able to be correctly backed up; no support. I’ve mentioned Mamet a lot lately, but again, he seems like the best candidate to do something like this. Then again, why he would waste his time with something so mundane, is probably the reason we don’t see him putting out movies like this.
As for Van Sant, I think of him as nothing more than a hack director. He is so caught up in his own work and is self-assured that he is some sort of Hollywood maverick, but he's an imitation, and as bad as most carbon copies reproduce. Van Sant enjoys reveling in attention and praise that is meant for others. I've never seen My Own Private Idaho and have been warned against watching Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, but Drugstore Cowboy was a cheap, one-trick story, very amateurish, while To Die For was a hack-piece of false documentarianism, and Psycho achieved no notoriety or style of his own. Pure imitation, and bad imitation as that. As far as Good Will Hunting, it was the genius of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's that Van Sant got any notice at all. There was nothing in the direction that wouldn't have already been there if the virtuoso duo had used a Camcorder. Van Sant, as far as his style and product of movies have gone, has never graduated film school. Finding Forrester is excessively edited, frame jump to frame just, as if this were some TV sitcom in which the actors were all promised "x" amount of close ups. He also toys around with the color of the movie, fading and bleaching colors here, discolorizing and over-saturating colors there. It was all very elementary.
What was so successful about Finding Forrester was that it took two well written characters (maybe that is where Rich's strength lies), and two types of characters that are often badly stereotyped --black characters and old characters-- and given the two strong performances that Connery and Brown turn in, they succeed very nicely. Maybe it was the excitement that only a writer knows that was caught up in some of the inspiration, especially the inspiration of wanting to be like the character of Jamal, but there was a scent of what being a writer is about in the movie, despite that Rich was not the cognoscente he was feigning to be. Anna Paquin was total stock character, and Busta Rhymes is obviously not an actor. Although he can handle about one line at a time, don't try to give him more than that; otherwise he uncomfortably squints, squirms and looks like he's acting. And I'm sure that Van Sant will try to take credit for his "acting discovery."Final Verdict: A-.
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originally posted: 01/08/01 12:08:42