Finding Forrester (2000)

reviewed by
Steve Rhodes

A film review by Steve Rhodes
Copyright 2000 Steve Rhodes
RATING (0 TO ****):  ** 1/2

In FINDING FORRESTER, director Gus Van Sant, who last gave us a shot-by-shot reconstruction of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, returns to the same familiar subject matter of the young and gifted that he pursued in GOOD WILL HUNTING. This time the story concerns a black, 16-year-old writer, Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), who leaves his run-down Bronx school to attend Mailor, a prestigious private school in Manhattan. Although he is awarded an academic scholarship, he is expected to help Mailor win the basketball championship.

Ironically, first-time screenwriter Mike Rich has fashioned a remarkably thin story about a first-time writer. Fully three quarters of the movie elapses before it finally gets to the big "plagiarism" incident, which like every twist is telegraphed way in advance. Although Rich pads the story with many inconsequential incidents, he permits us just one glimpse at Jamal's writings. The lone example shows only that Jamal picks heart-felt, close-to-home subjects. We get no sense of his literary abilities. We are allowed, mainly in practice sessions, to view some of his basketball prowess, but that isn't important since the point of the film, after all, is his writing.

Jamal's mentor is a Pulitzer Prize winner, William Forrester (Sean Connery), who lives a hermit's existence in an old apartment above the court where Jamal and his buddies play basketball. William, who will remind many of J.D. Salinger, wrote one book a half century ago and quit. No longer venturing from his place, he has food and fresh sox brought to him, and he views the world like a voyeur from his apartment window. On a dare, Jamal sneaks into William's apartment. Accidentally leaving behind his writings, Jamal gets them thrown back with comments both snide ("constipated thinking") and encouraging ("This passage is fantastic.") scrawled on them by William.

Brown and Connery deliver nice, albeit not exceptional, performances. The easy going chemistry between them has remarkably few rough edges and is a pleasure to watch.

William's teaching style is to let Jamal, using an old typewriter, take William's words as a starting point and to mold them into his own. As Jamal bangs away on the keyboard, William throws out homilies such as, "The first key to writing is to write, not to think." And they agree that starting a sentence with a conjunction is a good writing choice even if it does violate some old-fashioned rules. But one shouldn't do it too often.

F. Murray Abraham plays the clichéd Professor Spence, a man who couldn't write so he teaches writing. In fact -- you've got to love these coincidences -- it was none other than William himself who put the quietus on the good professor's last book attempt by calling his publishers and advising them not to publish it. Let me give you a flavor of the level of predictability in the script. Do you think that there will be a key confrontation scene late in the story between these two old protagonists? Who would you guess will prevail?

Anna Paquin (THE PIANO) is completely wasted in an underwritten part as Jamal's friend, Claire. Other than smile and talk about her rich father -- he fixed it so the school would go coed just so she could join -- Paquin doesn't have anything to do. A big scene for her is one in which she puts her hand on Jamal's in order to reassure him that he will get past his one big crisis.

The film works best as a light comedy, and there are many satisfying, albeit small, laughs. Generally, the movie aspires to be something more, but its retreaded dialog keeps getting in the way. "God, he's a basketball player from the Bronx!" the professor says of Jamal, as a way to prove that Jamal must not have the intellectual capacity to be writing the papers that he has been turning in for credit.

Sometimes it is the small things that trouble you about a production. Mailor is supposed to be the best private school on the East Coast, and much is made of the importance of its basketball team. When we finally see their games, Van Sant has set them in a gym so small that there isn't more than five feet on each side of the court, leaving room for no more than a few dozen fans. And then they switch to a packed Madison Square Garden for the championship. Sure.

Don't leave before the epilogue. There is an Academy Award winner who acts in a little uncredited part. If you like the movie, this epilogue could be the best part. The film, however, left me relatively unmoved. Still, it is always good to see Connery, and newcomer Brown shows a lot of promise.

FINDING FORRESTER runs a little over two hours. It is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual references and would be acceptable for kids around 12 and up.

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