It’s impossible to learn anything from Finding Forrester that can’t be gleaned from the broad outlines of a schmaltzy CBS movie-of-the-week. I went into the film anticipating a thematic brother to the observant Good Will Hunting, which lifted Finding Forrester’s director, Gus Van Sant, to fame. Observant, however, is a poor word to describe Finding Forrester, a film deathly afraid of being overly cerebral in word or action. Instead, the film’s creators continue Hollywood’s long trend of patronizing the general public, making unhealthy use of a popular mainstream substitute for actual intelligence: an insubstantial and insufferable haze of hackneyed philosophizing.
Finding Forrester brings together the gruff, Salinger-like recluse author William Forrester (Sean Connery) and the 16-year-old Jamal Wallace (newcomer Rob Brown), already a fine writer himself with basketball skills to match. It takes some time, of course, for their relationship to progress through the steps of the student-mentor story formula: they spar at first, but gradually grow more comfortable with each other, talking, writing and dishing out pseudo-profound remarks that are far less interesting than the screenwriter must have thought. More than anything, their friendship appears to be based on simply spending time together, yammering about this and that without actually talking about anything at all compelling. Though Forrester is declared a great writer, whatever he says is unbearably trite. In one scene, he recommends to Jamal that women love to receive gifts for no reason, as though he were not a Pulitzer winner but rather a relationships correspondent for Seventeen.
Forrester’s abject uncomplexity is less Connery’s fault than it is that of the film’s poor script, the first sold by radio film critic Mike Rich. Yet Connery does much on his own to make the role irritatingly undistinguished. Forrester’s path of emotional evolution in the film seems forced, each of its extremes a protest against the brusque and wry tendencies that Connery has honed for so long. Thus, when Forrester rails against his life’s misfortunes, his attitude seems unreal, an instrument of the plot. When he cries, he’s positively painful to watch. And when he shouts at Jamal to “Punch the keys, for God’s sake!” as he types, it’s a meaningless snatch of adrenaline meant to look snazzy in his Oscar nomination clip.
His budding relationship with Jamal shares screen time with the boy’s transition, bucked by his high test scores, from his multiethnic Bronx school to a prestigious Manhattan academy for snotty rich kids. Of course, this new school embraces the worst tendencies of the privileged class; appearance over substance is their collective lifestyle. Rich treats this view with uncomfortable unsubtlety, at one point even permitting a basketball teammate of Jamal’s to sneer at him, “You may think we’re the same, but we’re not.” Van Sant follows suit, photographing a faculty-student function through a thick, sickly pale green cloud; his intent to demonize the people within it could not be made clearer if he equipped them all with red horns and pitchforks.
It’s not too surprising, then, that Jamal must prove himself, on his own terms, in this hostile environment. F. Murray Abraham’s Professor Crawford provides Jamal with a suitably flat and pompous foil. Suspicious that Jamal’s talent for writing is illegitimate—“He’s a basketball player. From the Bronx”—Crawford endeavors to have him expelled. As Crawford’s role becomes prominent late in the film, Abraham dutifully slogs through a series of embarrassing scenes, trying to maintain some semblance of professionalism in the face of an increasingly obnoxious story.
To his credit, Brown remains a pleasingly assertive presence throughout, keeping Jamal’s outward development reined in with a quiet, natural skill that eludes his Oscar-winning counterparts. Van Sant shows proficiency in depicting the comfortable, expressive relationships between Jamal and his family and friends; there is not a needless look or gesture to be found in this handful of scenes.
But it’s galling to resort to heaping such faint praise upon the film when it makes so resolute an effort to stay superficial on every level. It spells out themes and motivations with exasperatingly banal clarity, with the odd obliquely stated plot point tossed in for variety. Time after time, the filmmakers mistake blunt musings for character depth and obvious platitudes for sage utterances. Most insultingly, the film has an annoyingly high “tired scenario” quotient, squeezing in a Big Game, multiple teacher-student confrontations, and a half-serious flirtation between Jamal and a token sympathetic classmate (Anna Paquin). The filmmakers must have used these staples of the sports, school, and teen romance genres, respectively, with the hope that the studio executives would look past the devices and instead praise their film’s wealth of complex characters and timely wisdom.
Assuming that he was complex enough to be a real person, Forrester would cluck at this review’s invective contemptuously. After all, at one point, he declares to Jamal that critics cannot presume themselves intellectually fit to judge his book accurately. But how seriously can his words be applied to Finding Forrester when the film, unlike a great book, has no core of intelligent or compelling thought deserving of deep analysis, flawed or otherwise? Finding Forrester may have a high pedigree and the outward trappings of an Oscar-caliber film, but it’s really no more healthy or appetizing than low-grade tripe dripping in syrup.