**/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras D+
starring Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, Anna Paquin, Busta Rhymes
screenplay by Mike Rich
directed by Gus Van Sant
by Walter Chaw Not content to play Salieri on film just once, F. Murray Abraham, after years of toiling away in decidedly lowbrow productions subsequent to Amadeus, has returned to the role that made him fitfully famous. It's interesting to me that an actor who found fleeting celebrity (as a composer who borrowed fame very briefly) would choose to make a 'comeback' portraying a once almost-famous writer/now frustrated teacher of English at a snotty prep school. Still, given the level of relative originality in Finding Forrester, it's not entirely unexpected that a secondary character played by a rather limited character actor is transplanted whole cloth from another film. On the other hand, something of a surprise is that Sean Connery would reprise his performance as an antisocial genius (who opens his heart to a creature of the Bronx) from Medicine Man, and that Gus Van Sant would try to resuscitate the flyblown carcass of Good Will Hunting by cleverly splicing it together with The Paper Chase.
When, three-quarters of the way into Finding Forrester--after a big, Hoosiers-style basketball meet--Orff's "Gassenmacher" from "Musica Poetica" (best known as the theme to Terence Malick's Badlands) erupts on a soundtrack that some very agreeable Miles Davis light jazz saxophone noodling had heretofore dominated, I was neither startled nor delighted by this tonal shift. I had resigned to suffering the endless parade of "homage" and hollow manipulation that comprises the film from script to direction. At that point, I wouldn't have been surprised if Robin Williams appeared and encouraged the uniformed students to read awful stuff like Vachel Lindsay's The Congo--prior to mounting their desks in a silent show of noble solidarity (something along these lines doesn't happen until later). Finding Forrester is, in other words, as bereft of new ideas as a hunk of nearly-animate cheese, a cunning description, as it turns out, for the film itself.
Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) is an inner-city kid who cloaks his intellect under a façade of affected apathy and Ebonics, except on a standardized test--which, like all standardized tests in movies about prodigies, buys him a free ride at a prestigious school. A fish-out-of-water scenario quickly develops as Jamal deals with his new surroundings and the resultant alienation from his old buddies, but it develops like one of those pimples you can feel for about a week before it's poppable. Ours is such a subterranean unease that there should be a good deal more conflict in the movie than there actually is. This is called "cowardice."
After breaking into his home on a puerile dare, Jamal meets J.D. Salinger-esque author William Forrester (Sean Connery). Jamal, you see, is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who is a misunderstood product of peer pressure rather than an actual criminal; for all the terrible influences and temptations of a kid in his situation, Jamal's lone act of mischief is in the pursuit of a harmless prank. How interesting would Jamal's character have been were he a true product of his environment? To give the piece tension, Jamal butts heads with Abraham's aforementioned Professor Crawford (Abraham). Evil Crawford resents Jamal's nascent talent and conspires to thwart it. If I need to tell you that this sets the stage for the reclusive Forrester to show himself in an uplifting moment of the kind made tedious by the tedious Dead Poets Society, then you just haven't been watching movies for very long, nor very carefully. This film is for you.
Anna Paquin (The Piano) appears as a love interest for Jamal. Like everything else about the storyline, her thread is largely unexamined and left hanging. Incidentally, Paquin probably shouldn't still be getting roles based on an Oscar she won when she was eleven. Her speech is so tortured and unnatural that I wondered a time or two if she was ill--do they make med-alert bracelets for marble-mouthed grimacing? Antonio Banderas could use one, too.
Though the film is most obviously about Jamal gaining confidence in his writing abilities, there is a (yes, "largely unexamined") subplot concerning Jamal and a rival point guard on the prep school's basketball team(?). As they appear to be on the court at the same time, either the coach for this prep school is an idiot, or there really isn't any kind of clash at all. What I'm saying is that for as little as Finding Forrester seems to know about writing, it knows even less about basketball. The real question is why the film had anything to do with basketball beyond the obvious answer that inner-city black youths must be playing it if they aren't selling drugs.
At any rate, the film isn't called Finding Jamal. The schmaltzy truth of the matter is that it's concerned with how a poor black kid can touch the life of a miserable old white hermit. The first thing I was expecting, but the last thing I was hoping to actually see, in Finding Forrester is a mildly homoerotic, interracial, and inverted Harold and Maude--sans character growth, verve, and pathos, of course. This is the first time that anyone will ever have cause to say that Sean Connery is no Ruth Gordon, but Sean Connery is no Ruth Gordon. (It goes without saying that Rob Brown is no Bud Cort.) Alas, Finding Forrester is just the tonic for people hoping to feel as if they're watching something literary and sensitive to race issues without actually having to endure anything challenging, thought-provoking, observant, or the least bit controversial. It's harmless and forgettable but best left by the dumpster if you're in the market for a more hearty repast. It is, after all, merely a hunk of nearly-animate cheese.
The DVD presentation of Finding Forrester from Columbia Tri-Star is handsomely rendered in a rich anamorphic widescreen transfer that captures the lush panorama of Van Sant's autumnal Bronx in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. New York has never looked more like John Irving's New England, complete with subtle shadows and a muted grandeur. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is a good fit for the bustle of life in the big city, while the Miles Davis music's crystalline digital perfection lends a delicate counterpoint to Connery's rumbling brogue.
An included medium-length "making of" featurette (15 mins.) that originally aired on HBO is a typically light studio piece largely interested in self-congratulation, providing a minimum of insight into the film beyond the basics of location scouting and a rundown of the film's major themes. Of marginally greater interest is a piece called "Found: Rob Brown" (12 mins.), which details the casting of a previously-unknown high-school basketball player in the pivotal role of Jamal. Neither documentary, however, amounts to more than a glorified press release, and the lack of a commentary track from Van Sant precludes much in the way of deeper analysis. Rounding out the special features are two deleted choir sequences (the De Witt Clinton High School Chorus perform "Lacrymosa" and "Lean on Me"), cast and crew biographies, brief production notes, and the theatrical trailer. Originally published: April 25, 2001.