They're already calling it "Good Will Hunting in the hood," and it's for good reason. Gus Van Sant's latest takes us back to the inner city (or The Bronx, at least) for a second verse of that feel-good feeling, with none other than Sean Connery as a crotchety old shut-in who teaches (and learns from, natch) a local teen (Rob Brown) who sneaks into his apartment.
If you've seen the trailer, you know the story. The local Bronx kids live in fear of "the window," a ghostlike man who stares down at them creepily while they shoot hoops. On a dare, young Jamal (Brown) sneaks into the place, finding it cluttered with books. He's given a scare and Jamal runs off, leaving his backpack behind.
The next day, his backpack returns from the sky, and lo and behold we learn of Jamal's true passion -- not for basketball, no. For the written word. And inside the pack, he finds his six journals, which apparently go everywhere with him, have been edited and critiqued by the man in the window.
It's tortuous plotting, but eventually Jamal befriends the peeper (Connery), who turns out to be none other than William Forrester, the famed author of a single novel published some 50 years ago -- a novel which won a Pulitzer and inexplicably drove its author into hiding.
An obvious stand-in for J.D. Salinger, Connery's character is a neurotic shut-in, crippled with anxiety and unable to leave his home. He drinks and pontificates and wears his socks inside out. And he starts teaching Jamal how to write. (And as a side note from this professional writer to any aspiring writer types reading this review -- please do not try to take Forrester's advice.)
Events transpire and Jamal winds up in a Manhattan prep school where he is soon accused of plagiarism due to his astounding, accelerated growth as a writer. That he is one of few blacks in a ritzy, almost-all-white environment (you know, he plays basketball) adds fuel to the fire. It'll take a miracle to get Jamal out of this jam -- and you'll just have to imagine the shocking conclusion of the film. Unless you already saw it in the trailer, I mean.
Unfortunately, the fact that the entire story of Finding Forrester can be told fully in 60 seconds during a TV commercial doesn't really matter. This is the kind of film where our young hero has time in every day for playing basketball, writing at Forrester's place, writing at home (as he's not allowed to remove his work from Forrester's apartment), plus, ostensibly, doing his schoolwork and sleeping. (What, no part-time job?) This is a Hollywood movie, and it's unabashedly so. Forrester is larger than life in the way that only Connery can be. Jamal is larger than life as well, the actor that plays him custom-made to repeat that Matt Damon/Ben Affleck Good Will Hunting Oscar magic. You'll hear this a lot: Rob Brown was born in Harlem and has no training as an actor. And he isn't acting here, he's reading his lines, being himself, and wondering how the hell he got on the set of a big-time movie. The press is going to eat this guy up like buttah.
Again, this is Hollywood, and all the old school wannabe-blockbuster elements are there. There's a commentary on class and race, there's Busta Rhymes provided for some well-done comic relief, and lest we begin to take the movie seriously, there's Joey Buttafuoco making a cameo as a security guard (no, really). The picture has the body of Girlfight and the ending of Scent of a Woman. It is unoriginal and long, it is predictable and mildly pleasant, it is cranked out for the least common denominator, and it won't offend anyone -- not even the prep school bozos it vilifies. That's fine. Movies like this don't hurt, and if they convince a few disenfranchised youths to pick up a pen and start some writing, all the better.
While Finding Forrester is an average film that earns my average rating, the real disappointment is its ultimately disheartening theme that makes you wonder how it ever got made. (I wondered the same thing about Good Will Hunting, but that's another story.) The problem is this: Much as in Hunting, which told us that anybody can pull himself out of the hood... if they're a super-genius, Finding Forrester says that anybody with a little talent can become a great writer... if they're tutored by a Pulitzer Prize winner.
I guess those kids will have to keep dreaming after all. Merry Christmas.