Published December 1, 2000
You know you’re in trouble with a movie that begins as the camera pans over the spines of a pile of highbrow books. Look at all those impressive authors’ names! Kierkegaard, Chekhov, Joyce, the Marquis de Sade. The selection is as telling (and is meant to be) as the books themselves about what it is we are meant to think of the film’s heroes, who are obviously the sort of people who read such books. And what kind of people read such books? Brainy people, of course. Or at least people who are ambitious of being thought to be brainy by others, who are less so. And why are they ambitious of being thought to be brainy? Because being brainy—especially if it comes by nature and manifests itself in the form of lots of quotations and other miscellaneous knowledge committed to memory without apparent effort—is cool.
Or that, at any rate, appears to be the view of Gus Van Sant, whose Finding Forrester hardly requires much in the way of a review. All the reader need do is refer back to my review of his Good Will Hunting, a Christmas movie of three years ago, since this is exactly the same thing, except the untutored genius there was an Irish kid from South Boston who was a whiz at mathematics while the newer version of this romantic figure is a black kid from the Bronx, called Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) who is a whiz at English literature. Jamal pretends to be dumber than he is—a lot dumber—in order to fit in with his friends, but when he scores through the roof on a state-administered test, he is offered a full scholarship to a posh private school in Manhattan. You can tell how posh it is because the guy who comes to recruit Jamal drives a Mercedes—not the ride of even the poshest schoolmasters that I know.
The school doesn’t get much credit either, because Jamal also happens to be a top-notch basketball player. Basketball—and pretending to be dumb—are “how he finds acceptance” among his largely brainless peers in the Bronx. When he makes the transfer to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he finds that his new school’s basketball team, otherwise made up mainly of rich white boys, are contenders for the city championship. The one other black kid and he become bitter rivals, for reasons that are never made clear, and engage in a free-throw competition in which both sink 50 straight shots from the line. Jamal is as much a basketball genius as he is a writing genius. No doubt if the school had a tiddly-winks team, he’d be a genius at that too. No wonder his charming fellow-pupil, Claire (Anna Paquin), develops a crush on him and offers to explain to him the ways of rich white people.
About the time that Jamal matriculates at his new school, he meets, in the course of burglarizing his apartment, the reclusive William Forrester (Sean Connery), a J.D. Salinger-like author of one novel, back in the 1950s, that has made him legendary among the sensitive literary types that Van Sant and his screen writer, Mike Rich are appealing to. Forrester takes Jamal under his wing and teaches him how to write according to what seems to me—admittedly not that kind of writer—a disastrous formula. This is to write from the heart, without thinking, and only then to apply what one can of one’s obviously atrophying rationality to the revision. Nor does the product of this method, that which we are allowed to hear, greatly prepossess me in its favor, though of course tastes differ. I wonder if even J.D. Salinger would like it. I suppose we shall never know.
Still, the point isn’t to make us believe in the writing so much as the writer, or rather the Writer—that romantic figure from the aristocracy of feeling who has been so beloved of Americans ever since Hemingway invented him as a public relations gag back in the 1920s and 30s. Somewhat oddly, this writer’s enemy turns out to be not someone (like me) who thinks him a poseur and a fraud but a less-talented literary rival who has not been so successful at impressing the reading public with the sensitivity of his own soul. This is a teacher at Jamal’s new school called Crawford (F. Murray Abraham), who, even though he himself fully subscribes to the romantic myth of Forrester and his kind, is made into the bad guy solely by disbelieving that Jamal is as spectacularly talented as he in fact is. Though mostly unspoken, the assumption is that this grievously mistaken point of view is motivated by racism.
Ho Hum. That again. It would have been nice to have had a villain who was simply filled with contempt for the posturing of Forrester, as much as for that of Jamal. It would have been nice, too, to have seen something of Jamal’s (or Forrester’s or Crawford’s) critical intelligence actually applied to a work of art rather than assumed on the basis of their ability to bark memorized lines from famous authors back and forth at each other (the real star of the show is Mr Rich’s quotation dictionary). Also, as a merely private beef, I wonder if the bonding between Jamal and Forrester couldn’t have taken place solely on the basis of literature and without the involvement in any form of basketball? Or if the film couldn’t have supplied evidence of literary talent unrelated to baseball? And how nice if it had had the courage of its convictions and actually developed the latent romance between Jamal and Claire. But none of these things happen, so your appetite for tales of the ro-wri, or romantic writer, will have to be as strong as my dislike of him if you are to have much of a shot at enjoying this movie.