Finding Forrester

At a time when many American films portray the nation as populated almost entirely by the comfortably middle-class, Gus Van Sant has established himself as one of the few U.S. directors willing to emphasize class divides. Even Psycho, which he recently remade, incorporates a theme of haves and have-nots through its elaborate red-herring robbery plot. It's worth remembering this fact not so much because it aids a better understanding of Van Sant's new Finding Forrester (a film as dull as death on a Sunday afternoon), but because it acts as a sort of thinly stretched tether linking Forrester and the director's other recent efforts to the early work that made him such an exciting filmmaker. Aside from some nice street-level widescreen cinematography and an effectively employed jazz score made up mostly of Miles Davis pieces, the Van Sant in this new Van Sant film will be hard for most viewers to ferret out. Introduced as the owner of a pile of books before the film even shows his face, newcomer Rob Brown plays a writing prodigy and basketball enthusiast from the Bronx who hides his talents to ensure the acceptance of his underachieving classmates. On a dare, he breaks into the apartment of a mysterious neighborhood loner, only to discover a reclusive, J.D. Salinger-like author (Sean Connery) living in Dickensian dilapidation, surrounded by books and appliances that apparently haven't been updated since the publication of his one and only book in the early '50s. Connery takes Brown under his wing, although his advice remains largely limited to unhelpful exclamations ("Pound the keys, for god's sake!"), and the two develop a writerly rapport that eventually extends beyond mere issues of key-pounding technique. Though abusive at first, his literary sensei begins to give Brown pointers on making the transition to a snooty, mostly white, mostly rich private school for which he's been recruited based on both his brains and his sports prowess. For a tragically miscast actor, Connery does fine, though he's never really convincing as a man who's spent the last few decades watching birds. Chairbound for most of the film, he still possesses an energy the virtually subliminal drama lacks; Forrester comes alive only in its basketball sequences, and then only briefly. Despite being a film about writing, it offers virtually no insight into writing itself, and even worse, it never allows the audience to experience the joy in the written word that its protagonists share. Instead, it's just an earnest, well-meaning drama that doesn't really know what it's talking about. By portraying brain power almost entirely as the ability to repeat facts from memory, scriptwriter Mike Rich displays the same sort of laziness as practiced by the last first-time screenwriters whose Van Sant-directed film addressed a brilliant working-class kid struggling to overcome the economic constraints of his background. Also like Good Will Hunting, Forrester eventually soft-pedals its points. Skirting around more subtle approaches to the issues of race and class, it unearths a villainous English professor in the form of a bearded, leering F. Murray Abraham who only needs horns to make his character's role clearer as he questions the talents of, as he puts it, "a basketball player from the Bronx." If it were a slightly different sort of film, Finding Forrester would end with Abraham getting pushed into a pool.

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