After the shock success of Good Will Hunting at both box office and Oscars, Miramax gave Gus Van Sant carte blanche. His reply: a shot-by-shot remake Psycho, and a promise he’d follow up with a more commercially straightforward picture. Though Psycho predictably bombed, it’s still one of the nineties’ most interesting, and perversely original pictures, in terms of using cinema in new, experimental ways. Watching Van Sant’s “cover” is to experience both versions running through your mind simultaneously and his minor additions and alterations have a joltingly powerful effect. Even the most ferocious of the movie’s many critics conceded Psycho might be a profitable exercise in terms of Van Sant directorial development. And now he’s delivered his ‘commercial’ followup, so we can judge for ourselves.
Finding Forrester, it turns out, is a huge step back. You again experience two movies simultaneously – but it’s bad news this time, as Van Sant lazily rehashed Good Will Hunting. Plotwise, we’ve got a young man (Brown as Jamal Wallace) who’s prodigiously gifted (in writing), living in a tough inner-city area (New York), surrounded by ‘ordinary’ pals who keep his feet on the ground. We see him go experience two teachers, one somewhat mean-spirited (Abraham in the Stellan Skarsgard role) and one crabby but essentially good (Connery, as the title’s reclusive novelist), with a sentimental personal interest in baseball. Nurturing his gifts brings him into contact with classy brunette love interest (Paquin) from the “right” side of the tracks. Our kid genius even gets to tick off a smarmy, patronising smartass with some scraps of trivial knowledge, echoing Matt Damon’s bar-room history-book speech from GWH.
Finding Forrester also ‘borrows’ from Dead Poets’ Society, Scent of a Woman, and, more recently, the comparatively sprightly Wonder Boys, and the resulting script is full of holes, loose ends, ludicrous contrivances and coincidences. It just so happens that, breaking into Forrester’s apartment on a dare, Jamal leaves behind a rucksack containing all his story notebooks. He only discovers that Forrester is, like him, a writer when the notebooks are returned, covered with critical comments in red ink (“constipated!”) More seriously, such a song and dance is made about Forrester never leaving his apartment that when the reasons why are finally revealed, they’re a big let-down.
At one stage, it seems Forrester never wrote his one legendary book at all – but this promising avenue (shades of the stories surrounding Truman Capote, Harper Lee, In Cold Blood and To Kill A Mockingbird) proves a misleading dead end. Later, it appears Jamal has killed himself in a fit of despair – another red herring, but this time a nastily manipulative cheap trick, typical of a script which sets up some interesting ideas but then has no idea how to develop them. Rich instead resorts to the most hackneyed of twists and caricatures – Abraham goes into Salieri autopilot and (arbitrarily) plots to ruin Jamal, leading to two lame climaxes: the lad must score a hoop in the last second of a crucial a basketball match to save his academic career, then, even worse, there’s a public-reading essay contest which provides all the characters with their just desserts.
It’s a shame to see such talent wasted – Van Sant and cinematographer Savides do make the most of their inner-city locales, and the one-on-one conversations between Brown and Connery are intelligent and engaging. Brown is especially impressive in a tricky role – a leading role, with Connery’s nicely humorous, surprisingly vulnerable turn definitely secondary. So why are the studio pushing Connery for ‘Best Actor’ and Brown for ‘Supporting Actor’? Likewise, why is the inter-racial romance so oddly chaste? You fears the worst. And the whole thing does drag on – unforgivably breaching the two-hour barrier in a desperate “never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width” attempt to convince us that it’s all Important and Meaningful and, of course, Oscar Material. No dice – it just feels ‘constipated.’
During the ludicrous essay-reading section at the end, the boy genius briefly rolls his eyes, embarrassed at the hokiness of it all – Jamal’s exasperation or Brown’s? Both? Whatever, it’s good to know somebody realised what depths of shameless corn were being plumbed.
2nd February, 2001
by Neil Young
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