All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

FINDING FORRESTER

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.

DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR?

Anyone in the mood for a ramble through the cinematic junkyard is directed to this broken-down jalopy of a movie, a crass, mindless farce about two horny, dimwitted stoners attempting to reconstruct their wild experiences of the previous night–of which, as a result of ingesting a few substances too many, they’re now blissfully oblivious. Their ultimate goal is to retrieve their car, the location of which they can’t recall, because it’s filled with gifts for their girlfriends that they have to find if they’re to have any hope of salvaging their relationships; the search involves them with space aliens, a bunch of geeks who want to travel to the stars, a pot-smoking pooch, a transvestite stripper who’s stolen a large cache of cash, a bevy of outer-space chicks in tight leather suits, some Keystone Kops, a mad ostrich farmer, a couple of Schwarzenegger wannabes, a fifty-foot tall vixen, and–inevitably–a gang of surfer-type dunderheads who want to bash our heroes to smithereens. The cast of characters is, to say the least, varied. A pity it’s not also funny.

The doltish duo, Jesse and Chester, are played with blank-eyed enthusiasm by Ashton Kutcher (who simply repeats the dumb schtick he regularly employs on “The 70s Show,” one of whose writers is culpable for this script) and Seann William Scott, who previously graced “American Pie” and “Final Destination” and does little more than smile idiotically for eighty minutes here. (The running-time, at least, is extra-short, though it’s unconscionably extended by a series of pathetic out-takes over the closing credits.) One doesn’t want to waste too much time discussing their comic limitations; suffice it to say that they make “Bill and Ted” co-stars Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter look like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

As for the rest of this lamentably smarmy and frantic teen sex flick, we may pass by in discreet silence the details of Philip Stark’s crude screenplay, filled with endless lame vulgarities; Danny Leiner’s frenetic direction, which milks the supposedly outrageous series of episodes so mercilessly that a junior-high talent show would play far more subtly; and the hapless turns by attractive Jennifer Garner, Marla Sokoloff and Kristy Swanson in supporting roles. (Just to give some idea of the quality of the humor, Ms. Swanson plays a sexy girl named Christie Boner.) One can merely express the hope that all of them will find happier outlets for their abilities in the future.

Not even the addition of a Third Stooge, which was probably beyond the meagre budget afforded by the studio, could have helped this dismal, mirthless clunker of a movie, the like of which really hasn’t been seen since the heyday of the American International cheapies of the late 1950s. Directly to the auto-crusher, please.