Gus Van Sant both directed and wrote his early films — Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Private Idaho — and they were films that showed originality, exuberance, and integrity: the promise of an auteur. Then there were some less successful outings followed by a breakthrough of sorts–the hugely successful Good Will Hunting, which earned him an Oscar nomination. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won the Oscar for their script for Good Will Hunting, a script full of youthful idealism which Van Sant proficiently molded into a popular product that managed to avoid going completely overboard with sentimentality.
With Finding Forrester, Van Sant is marking time, paying the rent. (Maybe marking time is the wrong phrase. The film runs nearly two and a half hours with long stretches that lag badly.)
The script is a first one for Mike Rich, and while it occasionally offers some skillfully written dialogue, the story is hackneyed. William Forrester (Sean Connery) wrote a widely admired novel forty years ago and then became a recluse, never leaving his old family apartment in the South Bronx, now a black ghetto. Through a highly contrived bit of plotting, Forrester comes into contact with Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), a neighborhood high school kid who happens to be not only a brilliant student and aspiring writer, but also a star-quality basketball player. Jamal manages to draw crusty old Forrester out of his shell sufficiently to establish a mentoring relationship, Forrester advising and guiding Jamal in his writing.
Connery delivers his usual skilled performance, but there’s only so much that he can do with a script that doesn’t provide him with convincing motivation–for his self-imposed seclusion in the first place, for coming out of his shell in the second. A reason is mentioned for the former, but only in passing and it’s not suggested with sufficient emotional impact to support the premise. Forrester’s opening up to Jamal is at the heart of the film and, while Jamal is a pretty special character, that Forrester would have been swayed by Jamal’s notebook writings to break out of four decades of solitude, is only tenable through an exerted suspension of disbelief.
Rob Brown, in his film debut, is poised and appealing, catching the intelligence of Jamal and his street smarts as well. When Jamal enters an exclusive prep school on scholarship, he is crossed by an embittered teacher (talented F. Murray Abraham wasted in a stock role). The formula requires that it must all come to a climax in which things will be made right on all sides. This scene involves a public reading. The weakness of the script is underscored when, instead of having inspiring or beautiful words read that would carry the audience into the magical quality of fine writing, Van Sant utterly cops out, drowning out the words with music that sounds like a watered down theme from Chariots of Fire.
Finding Forrester is a movie about two writers, but it doesn’t seem to have a clue about why writers write or about how writers write. Showing fingers on a typewriter begs the question. Maybe Rich should write a script about a speed-typing contest.