FILM / Gump: simple, but ineffective

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LIKE a cinematic Prozac, Forrest Gump (12) is in the process of anaesthetising America out of caring or criticism. The film is as passive and simple- minded as its hero, the mentally retarded Forrest, and it has become one of the top five box- office grossers of all time. It is a symptom of America's weariness: a security blanket, thrown over the last 30 years' history and clutched for dear life by a harrowed nation. If all these metaphors are muddling their way towards the hospital ward, that is not just an indication of this viewer's condition after a 142-minute ordeal. It hints at the movie's clinical proficiency. In Gump's Brave New World, the cinematic is edging its way towards the narcotic.

The story is straightforward: a man's life, told by him, on a bench at a bus stop, to anyone who will listen. Meet For rest Gump (Tom Hanks), a button-holing bore in a summer suit and scuffed sneakers, with a military crew-cut and a look on his face that is sad, puzzled and self-pitying. Forrest, whose IQ is 75, takes us in his halting, Eeyore-ish, Alabama tones through his life, starting with childhood and his sententious mother (Sally Field). From Ma, Forrest derives an armoury of banal saws with which to fend off the world ('Life is a box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna pick'), the half-witticisms that are now enthralling America. Never mind that, as David Thomson pointed out in these pages last month, a man of Forrest's IQ would be barely able to tie

his shoe-laces. Forrest thrives.

He has a talent for running (an emblematic virtue in a country that was founded on flight) and gets to college as a star American footballer. He goes to Vietnam and, as devoted and courageous as a hound, covers himself in glory. In peacetime he finds fame and fortune as a ping-pong player, before setting up a shrimp-fishing business (keeping a promise to a dead Nam colleague), in which an ill wind blows him the good fortune of destroying all the other boats but his. On and on it goes, through meetings with presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon), in which Hanks is grafted into archive footage, and with stars who Forrest unwittingly inspires - Elvis with the idea of his shuffle, John Lennon with the lyrics to 'Imagine'. Entirely episodic, the film is a non-starter as drama. Robert (Back to the Future) Zemeckis is the most technically ingenious film-maker in the world, but here his innovation serves a structure that is ancient. It's Forward to the Past.

What does it all mean? The joke of the film's success has been in watching its inanity analysed with Talmudic intensity. It is a conservative film, the right claim, because Forrest loves his mum, fights a good Vietnam war, and prospers, while Jenny (Robin Wright), his childhood sweetheart, opts for the counter-culture and comes to grief. It is a liberal film, the

left ripostes, because Forrest's war success is an indictment of the military's mindlessness. All this is about as instructive as gauging a child's politics from how he plays with his soldiers, since Forrest Gump isn't an adult work at all. As for ideas, it dabbles in a piece of pacifism here, a few family values there, and ends on a note of pantheistic bombast. If there is a general idea it is that we should be as cowed, stupid but good-natured as Forrest, and muddle through. Sub-humanity is the solution for humanity.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge Tom Hanks's skill and charm as the moronic Gump. The character follows a recent tradition of sentimentalising mental handicap, and Hanks wrings at least as much sympathy from us as Leonardo di Caprio did in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Johnny Depp in Benny and Joon. Hanks does a lot through stillness, acting wonderfully with his eyes, which seem to dart around in terror at the world's complication before settling on simplicity. In moments of high emotion his eyeballs dilate and his voice becomes a croak, turning him into a sort of Forrest Gulp. There are also good performances from Robin Wright, as the intriguing, underused Jenny (A Portrait of Jenny might have been preferable to Forrest Gump) and Gary Sinise, as For rest's Vietnam lieutenant who has his legs shot off - a portrayal of the anguish of disability that puts the rest of the film to shame.

Robert Zemeckis's direction is smart and witty, but it's a disappointment to see such mush coming from a true talent, whose superb Used Cars (1980), in its untrusting cynicism, was diametrically opposed to Forrest Gump. That speaks of a certain whoreishness, and

a tendency to be seduced by cinematic toys. Zemeckis handles neatly the moments when Forrest is inserted into history (telling Kennedy in the Oval Office that he needs to pee, etc). But you can't help re

calling Woody Allen's use of a similar device in Zelig to

provide a provocative metaphor for Jewish assimilation and a mocking commentary on the century's history. Forrest Gump is merely playing party games, and its moral, that it is to the numbskulled that we must look for our salvation, is far less helpful than Allen's message that insignificance doesn't have to be significant.

'And that is all I have to say about that subject' - as For rest is wont to close his ruminations, as if halting the world's turmoil were as simple as a full stop - except to conclude that Forrest Gump is a tale told by an idiot, full of saccharin and sentimentality, signifying a new low in American film-making. There is a Disneyish feel to Gump - the same formula of technological brilliance, comforting lies and phoney poetry. Except the real Disney is better. Much better in the case of The Lion King (U), which is quintessential Disney, with all the shining, vulgar virtues and sinister undertones which that implies. The story is a jungle Hamlet: the murder of the Lion King, Mufasa (the growl of James Earl Jones) by his villainous brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons, wonderfully inventive, making a lion sound like a weasel), and the exile of Mufasa's son Simba, until he can prove his lionhood and reclaim his destiny. As ever there is the stark contrast between the crude anthropomorphism and the delicacy of the drawing. Some of the evocations of the African landscape - the golden haze of dust as Mufasa is trampled by wildebeest, the limpid waters in which Simba confronts his fate - are as fine as anything in Disney.

Like Forrest Gump, Disney has always had a child-like innocence that has left it open to ideology. The Disney penchant for primal myths of unity and perfection is well to the fore here, with the theme song a paean to the Circle of Life. (The songs, written by Elton John and Tim Rice, and scored in African style by Hans Zimmer, are slushily catchy.) The critic who once pointed out the similarities between Disney and Leni Riefenstahl would have a field day with The Lion King's opening, in which the Lion stands on a jutting promontory, with the camera at the sort of adoring low angle Riefenstahl reserved for the SS elite. Politically correct the film may not be, but entertainment- wise it's impeccable.

For the rest, there is Mina Tannenbaum (12), a piece of French navel-gazing about two Jewish girls growing up in gossip and rivalry, but never taking the time out from their elations and miseries to allow us to get to know them. And Funny Man (18), a weird and wayward British thriller about a murderer in a jester's suit, sometimes jocund but occasionally risible.