Finding Forrester

"My name is William Forrester. I'm that one."

Finding Forrester, a film currently being touted for various Academy Awards, is one of the most overrated films of the year; a phony, lazily plotted, thoroughly formulaic Good Will Hunting rip-off (a fact made even more egregious when one considers that they were both made by Gus Van Sant) that has absolutely no idea where it wants to go. Seemingly important characters magically disappear, messages contradict themselves and the villain is one step shy of breathing fire out of his nostrils. And I can’t seem to watch a Sean Connery movie anymore without thinking of Darrell Hammond’s Connery impression on SNL (“Don’t toy with me, Trebek! I’ve been trying to create an Anal Bum Cover for twenty years!”).

Jamal (newcomer Robert Brown) is an African-American teenager who maintains an image of a tough urban basketball player. And since that image dictates that he be, well, not the sharpest tool in the shed, keeping it up requires that he contradict who he really is. In reality, Jamal is almost prodigiously intelligent; his standardized test scores are so high that one of the top private schools in the country offers him a full academic scholarship. His acceptance has nothing to do with basketball, though the recruiter says that the school “won’t be disappointed if he decides to play.”

Meanwhile, Jamal accepts a dare from his friends to enter the house of a neighborhood hermit, a mysterious old man who looks out his window with binoculars and to whom no one ever seems to have talked. Jamal is caught in the act and, making a mad dash out of the house, leaves his bookbag inside. In the bag is Jamal’s journal, the place where he writes his best work. When the backpack is returned to him (the old man drops it out of his window), he finds the journal scribbled with intelligent criticisms and suggestions for his writing.

It turns out that the man in the window is actually William Forrester (Sean Connery), a one-novel wonder whose sole triumph is part of every high school’s English curriculum. After writing it, he disappeared, never to be heard from again. Forrester befriends Jamal, helping him better his writing and prove himself in his new and difficult setting. The English professor there (F. Murray Abraham) thinks that Jamal, a basketball player from the Bronx, can’t possibly be intelligent and insists on baiting him every time he enters his class. Jamal also develops a crush on a rich white girl (Anna Paquin), which can’t be good.

Reading the plot description, you have to figure that this is going to be another one of those treacly institutional racism movies, such as Stand and Deliver. But the film surprises us by having one of the characters acknowledge that he (and presumably the movie) “isn’t going to deal with this racism bullshit.” And then, guess what? Finding Forrester goes ahead and deals with it anyway, becoming exactly the kind of film I feared it would be.

And then there’s the matter of the plotting, which is at best sloppy and at worst appallingly amateurish. The Anna Paquin character, for example, has a nice little moment with Jamal around the middle of the movie and then just goes away, not having any influence on the second half. There’s a conflict between Jamal and a snobby black rich kid in the academy. They have a foul shooting contest and a few skirmishes on the court. Then that, too, is abandoned. I’ll bet Van Sant put these plot lines in a little box on his nightstand so that he can take them out again for his next movie.

Finding Forrester strays in the characterization of its “villain” as just that, a villain. There isn’t a single attempt to humanize F. Murray Abraham’s character. They may as well have put horns and a tail on him. Such stick-figure villains are more common in Sylvester Stallone action films than they are even in the most mediocre movies like this; it seriously undermines anything the movie might have been trying to say.

Sean Connery is decent in his own way (Anal Bum Cover!), I suppose, though the Oscar buzz seems to be over my head here. There’s little here to merit any kind of special attention, never mind award recognition. Finding Forrester is innocuous enough, and I can see why people seem to be enjoying it, but it is a film about intelligence in unlikely places that, paradoxically, requires you to check your brain at the door.

-- Eugene Novikov

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