Gump phenomenon: Hanks, dumb luck or finger on pulse?


Nice guys finish second.

That's the message in the summer movie season, where, as expected, Disney's "The Lion King" racked up yawningly awesome numbers in the $260 million range and where, as unexpected, Paramount's "Forrest Gump" trounced such pre-season favorites as "True Lies," "Wolf" and "Clear and Present Danger." It will clearly finish in second place by Labor Day, with earnings of $222 million by its eighth week of release (close to double "True Lies' " take!).

I know an independent exhibitor in Baltimore who's still shaking his head and saying, "Why, why, why?" He thought the film was amusing but hardly had much in the way of staying power, and he made other selections instead, to his ultimate regret. Showing movies is just like a box of chok-lates: you never know what you're going to get. Meanwhile, the movie, like its hero, keeps plodding along in first or second place, implacably pleasant and decent and utterly unfazed.

Others are asking why as well; no film, in fact, has been so analyzed and re-analyzed, probed and poked, hit in the knee with a rubber hammer or had a stick placed on its tongue and asked to say ah. Is it reactionary, revisionist, revanchist, redemptionist or really funny? No one knows; no one agrees. It's a movie in search of a pathology to justify its amazing performance. But where everybody is giving you his or her theory, we've decided to give you something more, in keeping with this department's long, humble policy of providing maximum service for minimum reading time. Here, in one column, are no less than eight theories of "Forrest Gump."

Amazing discovery: I looked around the auditorium at a sold-out preview performance of "Forrest Gump" and realized that for the first time in many years, I was the youngest person in the room. By maybe 20 years. I buttress to this observation my 14-year-old daughter's two-sentence review of "Forrest Gump": "It's about a middle-aged dork and no kid would ever see it unless he was forced to by his parents. (She had been.) It's borrrrrrrrr-innnnnnnngggggg."

The movie business is based on (and some would say, debased by) young audiences. Most films pander after them with sniveling pathos, desperately hungry for the bucks in their jeans. But older Americans, even though they've given up on their weekly movie habit, now and then come out to back a specific film. The last such movie to enjoy a boost from gray power was the long-ago "Crocodile Dundee," perceived by many to be a re-creation of the old-time comedies of their youth. "Gump" enjoys some of these same values: it prizes virtues uncelebrated recently in films -- constancy, loyalty, friendship. There's little profanity, no actual sex, the old melody of unrequited love, and an endorsement of optimism. Perhaps more to the point is what it lacks: loud rock and roll, robots, breasts, that kind of pop nihilism that seems to embrace death and hold life as meaningless, smart-aleck banter, and contempt for authority.

The charm of Tom Hanks. Not to be underestimated. Hanks is an extraordinary graceful performer, who represents values no other star can quite manage. He's not classically handsome, he has very little sexual authority, he does not seem to seethe with inner violence, he even lacks much in the way of a command presence. In a different era of the movies, he would have been the perennial best friend, killed in the big attack. They'd find a letter to Mom in his pocket and John Wayne would read it to the platoon. "All the guys are wonderful. That's what we're fighting for, Mom. America, a land of wonderful, regular guys and their Moms . . ."

But Hanks has almost incandescent charm, and something more: a palpable decency, a humanity in his clear face and steady eyes. He's cuddly. He's E.T. grown up into an adult white male. Make him an AIDS victim and America weeps. Make him a widowed Dad trying to find the perfect mom for his little boy and America swoons. Make him the unconscious sprite of the Sixties and even if nothing in the concept is particularly fresh (hero as idiot-savant, hero as faux innocent, hero as luckiest dude this side of Ringo Starr), and his retardation is somewhat inconsistent and unbelievable, America stands up and cheers. It turns out that within a very narrow frame of character, he moves America in ways that have nothing to do with the message or the meaning or the values of the movie. It's pure star power and it wouldn't work with a single other actor. I mean contemplate . . . Sylvester Stallone as "Forrest Gump."

The Big Bang. "Gump" isn't formally "drama"; too much of the action is recapitulated or synopsized rather than fully dramatized. Too much happens off screen. A fable that casually deploys characters as symbols, it doesn't have much of a dramatic structure -- three acts, a climax. It's full of false starts and dead ends: the running subplot, for example, does nothing but set up glossy landscape photography. It stops for comic riffs, such as the computer-morphed scene of Forrest showing his "butt-ocks" to Lyndon Johnson.

Its narrative technique, however, is not unstudied, and basically quite clever: it's an orchestration of moments, gliding through the boring parts and just conjuring up powerful confrontations or revelations or emotional explosions without setting them up. Call it drama-lite, the soundbite approach to storytelling that confidently detonates the Big Bangs, knowing that for TV-trained audiences they are enough. And it does give you some powerful jolts, almost like a real drama and unlike any film this season. For example, no moment is more poignant than the death of Bubba in Vietnam, unless it's the haunting moment in the cornfield when young, abused Jenny (Robin Wright) asks Forrest to pray with her to be a bird. Or what about the moment when Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), on his new legs and with his fiancee, shows up at Forrest's wedding, healed at last after so many bitter years of torment? Formalists such as myself would prefer that such moments be earned rather than simply evoked; nevertheless, they are the sorts of gooses to the glands that people remember from earlier times, when they walked out and said, "Now that was a movie."

The two-hour preview. A corollary and refinement to the Big Bang theory, this one follows from an observation by a friend who notes that her one disappointment in the film is that if you've seen the preview, you've seen the movie. True, as far as it goes, which isn't far enough. The movie is a preview. What's the best part of any screening? The previews! The movies in synopsis, all the bad parts cut out, all the action and the sex and the jokes left in! That's exactly "Forrest Gump's" technique: it's like a two-hour preview of 10 different movies: the war movie, the shrimp boat movie, the college football hero movie, the tragic hippie princess movie, the you-are-there movie, the Elvis movie, the mama-is-dying movie.

Blankman. "Forrest Gump," politically and culturally, is anything you want it to be. It's a cunning blank, which can be colored to represent your darkest fears or most vivid memories. If you're a Sixties kind of guy, and protesting the evil war in Vietnam was the highlight of your life, then it gives you a war of napalm and horror, where young soldiers are blown to bits before your very eyes. Even if peace movement leadership is played as callow and oppressive, the solidarity and solemnity of the young demonstrators, and their presence as a force of history, is vividly evoked. See, it's a liberal movie!

If on the other hand you're a bitter hater of the Sixties, "Forrest Gump" has something for you too: it adores the young soldiers who fought the war and it portrays the peace movement leaders as cynical fools. It follows that line through tragic Jenny, who floats through countercultural America just as effortlessly as Forrest rides the mainstream, except that her progress, depicted in snippets, is inevitably downward, through drug addiction and what appears to be a kind of prostitution toward, finally, AIDS, God's punishment for the immoral. See, it's a conservative movie. (In fairness to the film, it does go to some lengths to establish Jenny's pathology: she's not "corrupted" by the New Left, but rather by incestuous sexual abuse on the part of her father, which has far more to do with her tragic weaknesses and the shape of her life than anything that comes later.)

When nice things happen to nice people. "Forrest Gump" has bumbled into something completely new, completely refreshing and wonderfully unrepeatable. That is the sheer pleasure of its subtheme, which is dumb luck. Forrest is no genius, but fortune smiles on him in a way no movie has dared let fortune shine upon its hero. Good things just happen, and without self-doubts or even much in the way of self-awareness he prospers; in fact, the less hard he tries, the better he does. He invests in a fruit company -- Apple computers. So wondrous is his luck that it rubs off on others, that is, when it isn't destroying them: the source of his fortune is a storm God evidently sends to destroy other shrimp boats for the crime of not being owned by Forrest Gump.

However unbelievable this is, and however unconvincing, it somehow appears to meet a human need. It's like a movie composed of all those lottery winner stories over the years; imagine, a fellow who wins the lottery once or twice a week, week in, week out. In the minds of many, of course, a link will be made between luck and virtue. Forrest isn't just lucky, he's being rewarded for his salient values, his friendship, his loyalty, etc., etc. Whatever: the deeper point is that there's a great deal of sheer pleasure in good fortune, even if it happens to others.

When bad things happen to smart guys. Don't you hate them? And it seems there's more of them around now than anytime: pundits, critics, columnists, experts, anchormen, writers and reporters. They seem to know so much, their opinions are so blasted cultivated, their analysis so detailed and forceful, they're so confident. And yet, things just get worse! Maybe they're not so smart after all. So in a way, "Forrest Gump" is a vivid rebuke to them. It postulates that innocence is more important than intelligence, that virtue is more telling than insight.

To a populace tired of being hectored by a media elite that will not shut up, this is balm indeed. No one with intelligence is rewarded; in fact, the smarter you are, the worse you do. Look at Jenny; and look at Lieutenant Dan, who doesn't recover until he gives up on the intellect and throws himself after pure luck; he rides Forrest's coattails to financial success and personal redemption. Is it anti-intellectual, as some have suggested? Well, it's not rigorously enough constructed to stand up to that charge, though clearly its sympathy is with the instinctive rather that the studied, with the instinctive rather than the planned. But the film isn't a 12-step plan. It's not saying literally: this is the way to live; follow these rules and all nice things will happen to you. Read my lips. It's a fable, a moral example, teaching by analogue, not direct action.

The why-does-there-have-to-be-a-theory theory. Well, really, why does there have to be a theory? Whenever a movie or book transcends its expectations and becomes a full-fledged cultural phenomenon -- not merely with "Gump," but other icons, from "Love Story" to "The Bridges of Madison County" -- critics instantly sit themselves down in the corner and crank out an elaborate piece to explain it all. The conclusions have a deafening sameness: the piece has no meaning, but rather strikes some kind of responsive chord in popular culture, meets an otherwise unsatisfied need, expresses some hidden mass concern. Nothing really is what it is, but something else, which only the critic can explain, which of course justifies his high salary, his fancy clothes, his Mercedes-Benz, the mistresses he keeps all over town, and so forth.

But . . . suppose it doesn't mean anything? Suppose it's just that the movie has a lot of neat things in it that people spontaneously like. They like the music. They like Hanks. It's neat when nice things happen. They feel a little sorry for Jenny. It's cool that Forrest gets a kid without having to go through the messy business of actually running a family. What's it about? Oh. Yeah. It's about two hours.

As Mr. Gump himself might say: $222 million is as $222 million does.

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