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(2000) (Sean Connery, Rob Brown) (PG-13)

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Drama: A reclusive author, known for publishing only one work, reluctantly tries to inspire, in his own unique way, a brilliant, but underachieving inner-city teen.
Jamal Wallace (ROB BROWN) is a smart, sixteen-year-old who lives in the Bronx with his mom, Janice (STEPHANIE BERRY), and older brother, Terrell (BUSTA RHYMES). An avid reader and writer, Jamal is a classic underachiever who'd rather play basketball with his buddies, including Fly (FLY WILLIAMS III), then let them know how smart he is by doing well in school.

Although his class grades are just average, his exemplary test scores as well as his prowess on the basketball court draw the attention of officials from Mailor-Callow, an exclusive Manhattan prep school, who want to give Jamal a full scholarship to attend.

In the meantime, Jamal takes a dare from his friends to climb up into the apartment of a mysterious man they always see watching them playing basketball from his window. Scared away once inside, Jamal forgets his backpack full of his writings in the apartment, but later has it thrown down to him by the still anonymous man.

Checking to make sure everything is there, Jamal discovers that the man has made critical notes about his writing. Intrigued by this, Jamal returns to the apartment and enters into an unlikely and unusual friendship with William Forrester (SEAN CONNERY), a famous writer known for his highly acclaimed but sole work, "Avalon Landing," that was published in the 1950s. Now a recluse, Forrester is intrigued by this young man who's so full of potential.

As Jamal enrolls at Mailor-Callow where he makes friends with Claire Spence (ANNA PAQUIN) and takes a writing class taught by a haughty professor, Robert Crawford (F. MURRAY ABRAHAM), he and Forrester end up teaching each other a thing or two about writing and life.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Although we're often envious or jealous of such people in real life, moviegoers seem to love watching those who are ultra smart, successful or good looking in the movies. Whether that's because we then get to experience those attributes vicariously for a few hours, or conversely watch them prove to be the beholder's eventual downfall doesn't seem to matter. We're simply just enthralled with such people.

Of course, if filmmakers are going for the latter type of characterizations and story, it's best to have such characters initially seem perfect (thus providing for a greater height for them to fall from). However, if they want their audience to sympathize - at least to some degree - with their "above average" protagonist, it's best to make such characters flawed in some manner so that they're at least somewhat more akin and thus accessible to the rest of us mere mortals.

One only need think of "Good Will Hunting" where Matt Damon plays a brilliant, but underachieving and occasionally surly character. That film also worked because it contained the student/mentor element where an older and more seasoned, but troubled man takes the raw potential of the gifted student and channels it into something productive. The result of both elements was an audience pleasing production that earned more than $200 million worldwide, nine Oscar nominations (with two wins) and launched the careers of both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Now, along comes "Finding Forrester," a film that's more than a little reminiscent of "GWH" in that a troubled mentor helps cultivate the abilities of a gifted but underachieving young man. Like "GWH,' this one also features an Oscar winning actor in the mentor role, and an unknown one as the student who's apt to use this vehicle as a career springboard.

The question then, that's probably on most readers' minds, is whether this film is as good or possibly even better than "GWH," or if it simply comes off as a cheap imitation hoping to capitalize on the success of that 1997 film.

While the answer to the former is unfortunately but not altogether surprisingly no, and I seriously doubt that the latter was the intention of screenwriter Mike Rich (a radio news anchor turned screenwriter) and director Gus Van Sant ("Drugstore Cowboy," the remake of "Psycho"), the picture is nonetheless above average. Yet, it will undoubtedly be compared to "Good Will Hunting," particularly when a late in the game, in-joke cameo does nothing but drive home that comparison. Then there's that little point that will spring up once people remember/realize/are told that Van Sant also directed "GWH."

Of course, and in a perfect world, one should look at any film as a standalone project, without all of the gossip and media baggage that comes along with them. Unfortunately, this isn't a perfect world. Nevertheless, I'll try to proceed in that fashion, but only after briefly asking why one would return - notwithstanding sequels - to a story that's quite similar to one they had done before, and only a few years at that. Can one say bad critical and audience reaction to that "Psycho" remake?

Overall, and all of that aside, it's a fairly entertaining piece of filmmaking, with most of the fun obviously coming from the interaction between the characters played by seasoned veteran Sean Connery ("Entrapment," the early James Bond films) and absolute newcomer Rob Brown. There's the usual and expected banter between the two and Rich gets in a decent number of clever and/or humorous bits of dialogue in the process.

Both Connery and Brown are great in their roles, with each feeling true to their characters even if the reclusive nature of Connery's isn't drawn well enough to make it seem completely believable and natural rather than how it appears here, which is somewhat as a clichéd plot contrivance. Brown certainly belies his utter lack of any prior acting experience and easily and quite surprisingly holds his own with Connery who, regardless to say, has just a wee bit more experience in the profession.

Anna Paquin ("X-Men," "The Piano"), Fly Williams III (making his feature film debut) and Busta Rhymes ("Shaft," "Higher Learning") are all decent in their supporting roles even if their characters aren't entirely fleshed out to be as good as they should have been. Meanwhile, F. Murray Abraham ("Amadeus," "Mighty Aphrodite") appears as the antagonist - in this case, an uppity private school professor who doesn't like the smart teen - but turns out to be too simple of a "villain" when he could have been far more complex and thus interesting to both us and the story.

That last observation can be applied to the overall film as well. While most of what's present may work - to varying degrees - the film isn't as complex as one might expect and certainly doesn't carry the emotional resonance that it should. While some late in the game developments - that probably won't surprise many - obviously attempt to get the old tear ducts pumping, they're not really that effective.

Nor is the predictable, climatic scene where the mentor shows up to defend the honor of his young charge. While that scene - and much of the movie - should be applauded for addressing and showcasing the hard to film internal process of writing, such moments aren't terribly engaging, particularly when they're presented in such a lackluster fashion. Whereas that climatic scene should have been full of passion and energy - since that's what the audience is led to believe will occur - it instead comes off as rather flat, lethargic and definitely less than compelling.

Nevertheless, and thanks to the strong performances from the leads and the fun interaction and often smartly written dialogue between them, the film manages to be entertaining and engaging more often than it's not. Although it's no "Good Will Hunting," "Finding Forrester" is good enough to rate as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 4, 2000 / Posted December 25, 2000

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