[box cover]

Forrest Gump: Special Collector's Edition

Paramount Home Video

Starring Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise,
and Sally Field

Written by Eric Roth
from the novel by Winston Groom

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

There's an old philosophical question: Who is happier, the fool content to spend his days occupied by the simple pleasures of a push-pin toy, or the intellectual, who fills his time wrestling with the unanswerable riddles of the universe? It's a difficult conundrum, and one probably not on the forefront of the minds of the millions of fans of the celebrated movie Forrest Gump.

Director Robert Zemeckis has always been more of pin-pushing filmmaker than an intellectual. Although occasionally clever (cf. Back to the Future), most of his filmography reads like a how-to course in screwball bombast and technical trickery. The ideas in many of his movies are novel and potentially provocative, but his approach is too often focused on the gimmicks that enable those ideas, rather than on the resonating implications they might have on our lives. This makes Forrest Gump — without a doubt one of a handful of the most popular, beloved, and acclaimed pictures in recent memory — an interesting case-study in the mass appeal of pretty, but empty, gestures.

Tom Hanks stars as Forrest Gump, a grown man with the mind of a slow child, his IQ of 75 lifting him just above the cutoff line for the mentally retarded, sitting at a bus stop and relating his life story to a series of bemused strangers. He went to a normal school with normal children, had a mom (Sally Field) who loved him, made a friend named Jenny (Robin Wright), taught Elvis to dance, went to college on a football scholarship, met President Kennedy, served in Vietnam, saved people's lives, won the Congressional Medal of Honor, met President Johnson, rubbed shoulders with Black Panthers, became a Ping-Pong champion, inspired John Lennon to write "Imagine," met President Nixon, foiled the Watergate burglary, became a millionaire in the shrimp business, a "gozillionaire" in the stock market, became a cult hero running around the country for three years, inspired both T-shirt slogans "Shit Happens" and "Have a Nice Day," married his friend Jenny, and had a son.

Gump's life was a wild and hectic journey full of the kind of extraordinary experiences that could transform an ordinary Joe, fill them with ideas, alight their heart with the sensations of sorrow and joy. But to Forrest life is just something that happens. Yet, the filmmakers couch his arc in heroic film language, and the audience accepts it. As usual in film and literature, characters with an childlike disconnect from the complexities of life are transformed by authors, filmmakers, and audiences into lovable iconoclasts reminding us of our own lost innocence. The same choice was made with Chance, the simpleton gardener in Being There, who, in the end, could walk on water, Christ-like. When it comes down to it, America loves the retarded. They are not just sweet, they are noble. They have something to teach us other folks.

However, it is a treatment without substance. At the very end our endearing numbskull breaks character and turns philosopher. He considers whether we make our destinies or they make us, and comes to the conclusion only an idiot would settle on — with absolutely no supporting evidence from his own haphazard biography, he weakly settles on "a little of both."

This attempt to paint Gump as both lovable and profound profoundly misses the point of his story, which could have just as well been called Dumb Luck. His life is directed by coincidence, and his successes gained with no effort — and often to the great disadvantage of guiltless others. His charm is vicious to those around him, who are plagued by misfortune. Luckiest of all is that Forrest was born to a mother who taught him kindness and positivity, because a mental midget in the wrong hands could easily turn out much less pleasant a protagonist, nurture trumping nature in the most significant ways. Forrest Gump, you see, is merely a pendulum swing away from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's equally limited Leatherface.

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The appeal of unfairly lionizing the handicapped is as condescending as can be. It makes us feel good to pretend that retarded people are somehow magical and wise, because otherwise we would feel so bad that they were severely mentally crippled. In popular culture we present them (and homeless people and Robin Williams) as if they have wisdom to impart, but are never explicit about what that is because it is not possible to come up with anything coherent, at least not that pertains to anyone living in reality. All a movie needs to do is give this misguided impression of an ennobled cretin, and the handkerchiefs come out, dab the eyes, and everyone goes home with a smile in their heart. Everyone except Forrest Gump.

It is interesting to note that in a film viewed by so many so fondly and with such reverence for its title character, Forrest seldom smiles. Once? Twice? In 140 minutes? His life is, in fact, tragic — a tragedy missed even by director Zemeckis himself. Unlike the fervently pin-pushing dunderhead of that age-old philosophical situation, Gump is only passively entertained by his preoccupations. He does not understand why he runs, except that he is told to, and often does so full of fear. He gladly retires his Ping-Pong prowess when given the chance. His time with Jenny is pensive, as he waits for her to leave him. Even their wedding is a day of consternation for him. He loses everyone that he loves, and when at a point in his life in which there is no one to lead his path, he enters a crisis period during which he aimlessly runs from shore to shore and back again until exhausted. This is the film's most perplexing period — especially as Zemeckis, apparently not paying attention, scores it with triumphant music and peppers it with shticky comedy. Gump's life-crisis is delivered like a quirky musical montage, and ends so presciently despite its comic tone as oblivious Gump decides on a dime to stop running while his small fanatic cult of running followers watch in angered bewilderment. They worshipped him for no reason, except that he did some quirky things — just as did those in the audience.

There is something to be learned by Forrest's example, but it is only half a lesson, and one poorly taught. As Gump's muse Jenny flees from her abusive childhood via promiscuity and drug abuse, and as his sidekick Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise) gnashes his teeth in spiritual breakdown, Forrest chugs along, unfettered by neuroses. In this day of self-destruction, the purity of Gump's life is enviable and worth pursuing, but not so for its disengagement. What is perhaps most appealing to the American viewer, and yet the most destructive, is the notion that one can profit in life with no mental effort, without thinking. Here we see a man who finds himself in the center of some of the most embattled issues of our time (school integration, the Vietnam war) and meets some of its greatest cultural icons (President Kennedy, Dick Cavett), but he never has and never attempts, even quietly, to make an impact. He can't, he is too limited; but this is not a quality to admire. It misses the other side of the debate between simplicity and intellectualism, the side that finds its joy in sorting the complexities of life and the direct impact this action has on peoples lives. It's also worth noting that the intellectual can still withdraw from his struggles to enjoy the simple pleasures of sensation, while the pin-pusher is statically stalking a one-way street and the gratification is redundant.

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Despite Forrest Gump's half-baked sentiments and slipshod structure, you get the impression that Zemeckis and screenwriter Eric Roth also thought of their movie as telling the story of late 20th century America, with Forrest forging ahead through social injustices, political squabbles, senseless violence and cultural hiccups as a symbol of the unflagging optimism of the American spirit. Perhaps it works on some rudimentary level, but Zemeckis' vision of these trials is so candy-coated as to render them insignificant. His Vietnam war plays like a late-night ad for a 1960s-era soundtrack collection, and when a character is stricken with AIDS, it is a pretty AIDS that makes the skin beautifully pale and takes life quietly (just the opposite of the hideous disfiguring illness that devoured Hanks the previous year in Philadelphia).

Tom Hanks is the magic that made Forrest Gump the success it is, even though it in turn made him an asshole. Before he tried to change the world with every leading role, Hanks possessed a brilliant combo of affability and sharp humor that enlivened unambitious fare like Bachelor Party and Punchline, and his Gump is empathetic despite being drowned in sap-sucking manipulation and thematic misinterpretation. His charisma is enough to surmount the picture's worst moments, although he occasionally betrays Forrest's cognitive limitations. The rest of the cast is not so exceptional. Sally Field is simply saccharine as guiding mother Gump, even when she turns whore for her son's advantage, and Robin Wright is saddled with the thankless task of playing the cold, thankless slut always leaving our Forrest in the lurch. Gary Sinise, in an unwatchable turn, is guilty of the worst scene-chewing ever known to man.

As far as Zemeckis seems concerned, the real star of the show is the special effects, and some of them are very special indeed. Awesome in its unnoticability is the digital amputation of Sinise's postwar legs; if only they could do something about the rest of him. Other effects, however, are conspicuous in their noticability, particularly for how terribly bad they are. The "groundbreaking" integration of Hanks as Gump into newsreel footage so he can fictionally interact with historical figures is sloppy and dumb, with terrible, cartoony mouth animations, awful and ludicrous voice impersonations, and the odd misproportioning of heads. Is John Lennon's head really twice the size of Gump's? Is that groundbreaking? Of course, this inept effecting is only confounded by the poor gag-like stupidity of each of these scenes, rendering them worthless in both style and substance, and certainly nothing to brag about, especially in the wake of Jurassic Park.

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As a two-DVD set, Forrest Gump feels a bit thin, but mostly just because of the insipidly fawning tone of its supplements. Disc One contains a certainly fine looking and colorful transfer, in amamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), with audio in a rich Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. But that's expected, and not why you're reading this.

The first commentary by director Robert Zemeckis, production designer Rick Carter and producer Steve Starkey is full of self-approval, observations of Gump-worthy intellect (Zemeckis: "I thought it was very ironic that so many presidents, in my life, were shot at, and when you put them all together in a two-hour movie it's pretty amazing"), and interpretation that begs scrutiny:

Steve Starkey: It's amazing that every single scene is a revelation to Forrest. Nothing to him — he doesn't understand anything in his life until he experiences it. But I've just never seen anyone experience so much, knowing so little.

Rick Carter: Yeah, I think at this part of the movie you still think you're much smarter than him.

Starkey: Yeah.

Carter: And by the end of the movie, he's surpassed you.

Starkey: No, he actually has a much greater understanding of mankind and humanity than I think any of us do.

Carter: And he knows himself.

Starkey: Mm-hm.

(So how is it that a fictional character has a greater understanding of mankind than the mankind who created it? Leave it to Hollywood's overinflated sense of importance.)

On the other commentary track producer Wendy Finerman speaks lovingly and without perspective about the project she shepherded through production from its inception. Finerman: "When I first read the novel Forrest Gump by Winston Groom, I imagined what the world would be like if everybody had come into contact with a man like Forrest. He was so honest. He was so simple. He had a way of looking at people, incidents, history, animals, nature in ways that I don't think anyone had quite seen the world before." (Except, that is, for the guy who bags my groceries.)

On Disc Two is the half-hour feature Through the Eyes of Forrest Gump, which plays like an extended EPK, as well as four short niche featurettes guaranteed only to interest hobbyists: The Magic of Makeup, Through the Ears of Forrest Gump (Sound Design), Building the World of Forrest Gump (production design), and the most interesting to the lay person, Seeing is Believing, which deconstructs 11 visual effects, including two that didn't make it into the film.

There is also a collection of screen tests, including two clips of Robin Wright, two clips of young actors Hanna R. Hall (young Jenny) and Michael Conner Humphreys (young Forrest, whose performance went unchanged from test to screen), and two clips of Hanks interacting with a young and charismatic Haley Joel Osment auditioning for the role of Forrest's son. It may be interesting that some of the audition scenes did not make it into the final script, or it may not be.

Also included are the unenlightening yet ubiquitous features of a photo gallery and trailers. Maybe you do know what's in that box of chocolates after all.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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