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[whitespace] 'Finding Forrester'
Pen Pals: Reclusive novelist William Forrester (Sean Connery) mentors Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), a gifted up-and-coming writer.

Wordsmithing 101

Gus Van Sant's 'Finding Forrester' has a secondhand admiration for the art of writing

By Richard von Busack

DIRECTOR GUS VAN SANT'S Finding Forrester is a revisit to the themes of his hit Good Will Hunting. Instead of Robin Williams, here's William Forrester, a surrogate J. D. Salinger played by Sean Connery. Forrester has written one great novel about 50 years previously, titled Avalon Landing, which sounds like an exposé of a gated community. Since then, Forrester's been a hermit in his apartment. One day, a Bronx kid named Jamal (Rob Brown, debuting) breaks into Forrester's apartment on a bet from his friends. Discovered, he flees, leaving his backpack behind. Later, Jamal retrieves the backpack and finds that someone has gone over his journals in red ink. This begins a series of life lessons taught by the old man.

While Jamal starts these sessions with Forrester, he also begins a scholarship at the elite Mailor-Callow school in Manhattan. There he faces the snideness of the English instructor Crawford (F. Murray Abraham). Take a handsome, well-mannered African American ghetto kid who likes basketball, who is recognized by all as a first-rate writer, who attends a name prep-school and who is mentored by a legendary reclusive author ... wouldn't such a young man streak into the world of letters like a missile? What could hold him back? Nothing, and that's the dramatic reason for Crawford's two-dimensional villainy. To explain Crawford's crabbiness, Forrester tells how he long ago used his clout to suppress Crawford's book, thus embittering him. We're not even supposed to acknowledge Forrester's arrogance at squashing a competitor. Look at that pockmarked puss: there's your villain, boys! Crawford is a villain, and so his book would be a villain's book.

Somewhere in Finding Forrester is an intimate story, adorned with Miles Davis music and wistful photography of New York. But this is cluttered with dramatic gingerbread by screenwriter Mike Rich: a rivalry between two students that peters out into nothingness, and a class-crossed romance between Jamal and a rich girl, played by Anna Paquin. In the film's high point, Connery beautifully delivers a second-rate speech that explains his character's seclusion completely. It's the mark of a great star how he can make a cliché sound wrenching. And it's the mark of an inferior screenplay when a hero explains all his lifelong quirks in one easy paragraph. (These are the scenes Oscars are smelted for.)

If you listen to the words in Finding Forrester, the illusion is tarnished. The film has a secondhand reverence for the written word; it's like an unread gift edition of a classic decorating a living room bookshelf. Note Forrester's advice: "Have you ever noticed that the writing we write for ourselves is so much better than the words we write for others?" It's a good thing for the readers of the world that no serious writer believes this.

Finding Forrester (PG-13) directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Mike Rich, photographed by Harris Savides and starring Sean Connery, Rob Brown, Anna Paquin and F. Murray Abraham, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the December 29, 2000-January 3, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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