In Alfred Hitchcock’s famous interviews with Francois Truffaut, the master of suspense talked about “running for cover” whenever he made one of his relatively frequent box-office failures. He simply meant that he went back to the tried-and-true, to what had worked before–a tactic that was usually successful. In “Finding Forrester,” Gus Van Sant, who earned critical brickbats (and public disfavor) with his 1998 remake of “Psycho,” hastens to follow Hitchcock’s practice just as slavishly as he did the maestro’s 1960 masterpiece in that poorly-received scene-by-scene reconstruction. The new film is an obvious variant of his 1997 smash “Good Will Hunting,” though to be fair there’s a heavy dose of “Scent of a Woman” in it too; whatever model you choose to emphasize, the tale of an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship between a young man (troubled in some way) and an older fellow (also suffering from some misfortune) is hardly something we haven’t seen before.
As formulaic as it is, in fact, the film has no right to work–but it does. “Finding Forrester” is hardly a seamless piece of cinema, and it has its share of obvious, saccharine moments. But the picture’s played with a disarming looseness that makes even its most predictable patches endurable. It’s one of those rare instances when you know you’re being manipulated, but realize that it’s being done so skillfully that you don’t really mind.
The youthful protagonist is Jamal, a highschooler from the projects (Robert Brown) who’s not only a basketball star but also a genius-level student. On a dare from friends one night, he breaks into the apartment of a local recluse notorious for scanning the neighborhood with binoculars; confronted by the owner, he drops his backpack, which contains samples of his writing. Eventually he gets them back, only to find that they’ve been graded and, in some cases, praised. Mustering up the courage to ask for further assistance–especially since his test scores have earned him a scholarship at a posh prep school downtown–he gets to know gruff, solitary Forrester (Sean Connery), who, he eventually learns, is actually a famous, J.D. Salinger-like novelist who’d disappeared after publishing the “great American novel” in the 1950s. Before long, of course, the two become fast friends–the older man mentoring a youth he perceives as a grat talent, and the boy encouraging the writer to confront his past and venture back into society. Of course, to give the story some dramatic punch a villain is needed, in this case an arrogant stickler of a lit teacher (F. Murray Abraham) who doubts that Jamal’s work is his own and threatens the kid’s future. Under these circumstances can Jamal keep his word never to breathe a word about his link to the novelist? Will Forrester force himself to come out of his self-imposed exile to help his friend?
The answers to these questions won’t surprise anybody who’s ever seen a movie before, but in this case they’re given a certain freshness by Van Sant’s relatively laid-back approach and the restraint shown by most of the cast. A great deal of the attention will probably go to Connery, and he’s quite good, showing a lot more energy than has been the case in his recent pictures while getting through the potentially maudlin moments toward the close with considerable dignity. (Happily, when he eventually makes the obligatory public appearance there isn’t a “Hoo-hah!” to be heard.) But the person who makes the movie really work is Brown, a non-professional who looks a bit like a younger Andre Braugher and does a very natural, unforced turn, holding his own against Connery without trying too hard. (He’s also entirely credible on the basketball court.) Anna Paquin paints a sharp, incisive portrait of a rich girl who falls for Jamal at his new school; it’s especially nice to see an interracial coupling of this sort pass without comment. (The girl’s father is concerned about the relationship, but because Jamal is poor, not black.) And rapper Busta Rhymes is very winning as Jamal’s supportive brother. The only drawback among the cast is Abraham, as the snide, stuffy teacher. The actor actually tries to rein himself in a bit, but it’s too late; ever since “Amadeus” his nostrils seem to be stuck in perpetual flare mode, and his smile has developed into a permanent grimace.
“Finding Forrester” is, to be sure, overly reminiscent of “Good Will Hunting” (a surprise cameo toward the close simply accentuates the connection), and it fails, as virtually all films about artists do, to portray the creative process very convincingly–the advice Forrester imparts to Jamal (“Punch those keys! Just let your fingers roam!”) is scripter’s hogwash, and we’re never exposed to much of Jamal’s (or Forrester’s) writing, simply because it could never match the superlatives showered upon it. Moreover, the movie builds to too many climaxes, the piling up of which strains credulity to the breaking point. But thanks to Van Sant’s deft touch and mostly fine performances, the flaws are minimized. The director might be running for cover with “Forrester,” but he’s succeeded in finding it.