Sunday, September 09, 2007

Good Director/Bad Movie

Welcome to Film-Watching Robot's new regular feature, Good Director/Bad Movie. This semi-weekly (depending on my free time) new feature will focus on a shitty movie made by a director I like. I can't think of a more appropriate film to kick off this series than Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester. Van Sant has always been a polarizing director, for critics and audiences alike, but, for the most part, I greatly admire almost every movie he's made. Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, even the goofy, awkward, yet unfairly maligned and severely underrated Tom Robbins adaptation Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. I liked them all, and mostly loved them. Still do. Something happened in the late nineties and early two-thousands, though. Van Sant, thankfully temporarily (though it was a long temporary), lost his way. It started when he was offered, and accepted, Good Will Hunting. His most financially successful and crowd-pleasing film, Good Will Hunting is basically a remake of Rocky, but with math. Written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and produced by (yuck) Kevin Smith, it still has Van Sant's visually distinctive eye, a weird Harmony Korine cameo, and is reasonably entertaining, much more entertaining than a film with Affleck and Robin Williams has any right to be, but Van Sant, for the first time, was not personally connected to his material. It was a job of work, and its success has more to do with how much mainstream U.S. audiences never tire of the Rocky story, even after the 1500th fucking time, than with Van Sant's artistry. Ostensibly an "independent" film, if you consider Miramax independent-I sure as fuck don't, Good Will Hunting was a whole lot of empty audience wish fulfillment and Oscar-bait. But what do I know? People love that movie. When my college film professor expressed his disappointment with it, half the class actually booed him. (He deserved some boos, just not for that particular opinion.) I was disappointed, too. But it got worse. Next came the unfortunately timed (considering its bookends) shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho. Like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, it was hated by audiences and critics alike, and this time for understandable reasons. I actually admire it, for its dumbass audacity and unembarrassed "desecration" of a classic, but I don't understand the few changes Van Sant made (the masturbation scene, the added nudity, the pseudo-avant garde images of clouds and goats edited into the murder scenes), Vince Vaughn is a piss-poor Anthony Perkins, and why bother shooting in color if you're going so far as to recreate the original shot-for-shot. Filming it in color seemed an obvious concession to Hollywood producers and the lazy, lazy multiplex audience. I still have no idea what to make of the film, which wouldn't be such a problem if it had been preceded and followed by good films, but, at the time, it seemed like more proof of Van Sant's decline. After Psycho, Van Sant made the worst thing he's ever done. Basically another remake of Rocky via Good Will Hunting via Scent of a Woman, Finding Forrester is about a promising young high school student who, through a series of generic Hollywood contrivances, befriends a reclusive Salingeresque author who inspires him to live his dreams. Not content with Matt Damon's twentysomething working-class math genius, Finding Forrester ups the ante with Rob Brown's inner-city whiz kid. Not only is he a sixteen-year-old basketball star, but he's also a gifted writer who has somehow memorized every major novel, short story, and poem ever written. He is Michael Jordan, Richard Wright, Will Hunting, and Rocky Balboa in one uncharismatic package. Shazam! The Salinger figure, Forrester, is played by Sean Connery, who is of course hostile to young Rob Brown until his cynical, cold heart is slowly melted. Both men reveal truths to each other, and Connery learns to live again, exemplified by his thick Scottish brogue clamping down on the phrase, "You're the man now, dogg!" Unfortunately, "Hoo-ah!" was already used by Al Pacino several years previously and was unavailable to screenwriter Mike Rich (who also wrote the Cuba Gooding Jr.-plays-retarded-man inspirational tale Radio). Did I mention F. Murray Abraham plays an evil private school English teacher? Is Connery's Forrester going to leave his apartment for the first time in years to vouch for Rob Brown after Abraham accuses him of plagiarism? Will Apollo Creed rise from the dead? Will Robin Williams eat a bologna sandwich? Will I save money on my car insurance? Will Busta Rhymes' film career ever stop skyrocketing?
Van Sant has reticently admitted having zero interest in the film, and merely wanted to see what it was like directing a blockbuster, and it looks like it. Before the plot kicks in, the film has a definite visual flair and sense of place, but once Brown and Connery meet, Van Sant's style disappears and we could be watching Failure to Launch. Flat, uninteresting, boring, stupid, and conventional, Finding Forrester seemed like the nail in Van Sant's coffin. Surprisingly, he was one of the few directors lost in the mediocre Hollywood jungle who was able to find his way back out. His last three films, Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, are every bit as good as his early work. Finding Forrester, though. Holy shit.

You're the man now, dogg!

1 comment:

conorj said...

My grandfather was a great novelist. He was always reading Shakespeare, Dickens, James Joyce, and quoting "Finding Forester." I remember this one time he told me, "Lock the door, if you're coming in."

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