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Reading, Writing and Playing it Safe 

Finding Forrester (PG-13)
Columbia Pictures

Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) takes a huge leap of faith in casting newcomer Rob Brown, an inexperienced, 16-year-old non-actor as the lead in a movie that's best described as a Bronx update of Van Sant's Good Will Hunting. But where the script for Good Will Hunting turned and twisted like a Ferrari on the California coast highway, Finding Forrester lags and lurches like an old Volkswagen navigating potholes in a bad neighborhood. Brown does a perfectly respectable job in the role of Jamal, a well-read, basketball-playing, aspiring writer, but doesn't come close to the sophisticated acting level of, say, a Tobey Maguire or a Joaquin Phoenix.

Van Sant lingers too long on setting up the characters before the story kicks in, and gives an overwrought weight to endless scenes between Jamal and his writing mentor William Forrester (Sean Connery), inside the reclusive author's book- cluttered apartment. The top-heavy casting serves to give Sean Connery the floor as a grand master, massaging his role with flourishes and his signature Scottish charisma.

Jamal is special because he hides his bookish intelligence from his peers and teachers as a way of divisively slanting the scales in favor of his own promising academic future. But his overzealous reading habits beg the question of where he got the initial inspiration to devour the classics of world literature. Even the most avid students of literature spend years plugging through time-consuming stacks of books by Shakespeare, Joyce, Dickens, Hemmingway, Orwell, and the list goes on. For a poor 16-year-old kid to have gotten through more than even a dozen or so classics pushes the boundaries of believability way past the confines of the Bronx projects where Jamal lives.

In one recurring unexplained sequence Jamal is shown copying the work of his mentor, but he's merely typing over words that are already on the page. It's a strange bit of movie trickery that pulls the plug on the action and makes you wonder more about what the director is trying to accomplish than what's going on in the story.

After Van Sant's recent controversial near shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 shocker Psycho, Finding Forrester is predictable as a bow to the Hollywood powers-that-be to prove that Van Sant is still capable of directing mainstream dramatic hay. Most lacking in his efforts since Good Will Hunting is any sense of humor or random quality of inspiration that his earlier movies (Drugstore Cowboy, To Die For) possessed in spades.

It's as if the director's been busy reading too much of his own press and decided to be strictly pragmatic and academic about furthering his career. Even his casting of an unknown/ untrained actor guarantees that the newcomer isn't going to take any out-there chances with his performance as Matt Damon did with his role in Good Will Hunting, or Joaquin Phoenix did in To Die For.

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