Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why Forrest Gump is still a great movie (and yes, it's better than The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button)

I haven't written much about The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and I don't intend to (it's a gorgeous looking, but flat, relatively uninvolving movie with a stunningly powerful final five-minutes). My friend, Randy Shaffer of DVD Future (and now, IGN - mazel tov!), was the first person to point out the similarities to Forrest Gump when he saw the film in early November. Over the last two months, the obvious self-plagiarism by Eric Roth has become a running joke, and frankly its probably the defining reason that The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is no longer the front runner at the Oscars (I'd argue the only reason it's even in the running anymore is due to it's surprisingly robust box office).

Whether or not this bothers you upon viewing said film is probably a question of how much you'll still admit to liking Forrest Gump. I loved the film back in July, 1994 and I still do today. But I know I'm in the minority. Of all the many victims of 'blockbuster backlash', none has suffered as much as Robert Zemeckis's Oscar-winning mega hit. Like Titanic, this is a critically praised, audience adored, and Oscar-winning smash that no one admits to liking anymore.

The biggest reason for the backlash, aside from the general need for the movie going 'elite' to inherently dislike anything popular, is the accidental role that the film has played in the 1990s culture war. The film's folksy, southern bent and overt emotionalism is the kind of thing that usually sends the movie snobs heading to the hills. And it didn't help that, during a speech in summer 1994 about violence and obscenity in Hollywood movies, eventual presidential candidate Bob Dole singled out Forrest Gump (along with The Lion King and The Flintstones) as the kind of movies that Hollywood should make more of. And when the GOP took back the Senate and the House Of Representatives in November and declared a new era of conservative rule, the seemingly 'conservative' Forrest Gump became the filmic whipping boy of angry film-loving liberals. And the release just three months later of the counter-culture movie of the decade, Pulp Fiction, brought about a bizarre 'us vs. them' dichotomy where one film was the cool, hip, liberal movie and the other was the square, cheesy, conservative film. This was especially inexplicable as Quentin Tarantino himself was a fan of Zemeckis's film as well.

But aside from the 'it's overrated' and 'its corny' sentiments tossed out by the naysayers, the one charge that has stuck is Zemeckis's somewhat foppish treatment of the 1960s radical youth movement that Forrest Gump's childhood sweetheart, Jenny Curran, finds herself involved in. It is absolutely true that the anti-war movement is shown in a somewhat cartoonish fashion, with the somewhat naive and over-their-heads 'free love generation' being portrayed as simplistic in their thinking, incompetent, and occasionally violent (the latter does have some historical precedent).

Fair enough but (pardon a slight digression), from my interactions with today's equivalent, Zemeckis may not be entirely off base. Like any mass movement, there are certain liberals/progressives who know little of what they speak. These are the sorts that in 2004 thought that their liberal education began and ended with Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. These are the people who honestly think that Barack Obama will bring about world peace, end hunger, save the environment, and bring balance to the force in the first hundred days. They joined the Obama campaign because it was the cool thing to do, because he was charismatic and handsome, and because they wanted to be part of a vague 'movement'. These are the people who embarrassed themselves (and us) when they were asked about what Obama specifically stood for, because they had no clue of his policy stances on any given issue. And trust me, as a dye-in-the wool liberal, they are just as annoying as the equivalent 'ditto-heads' on the right.

But even if we don't feel like making excuses for Zemeckis's treatment of the 1960s anti-war youth movement (and note that he paints a more positive picture of the civil rights movement of that era), we must acknowledge a couple of things. For one thing, the film is viewed through the eyes of its simple-minded protagonist, someone who invariably saw the world in stark black and white and was probably confused by the moral complexity of his time. For another thing, complaining that the film punishes Jenny for her wild-child ways or criticizes those who wanted to make a difference is missing the point of the movie.

For all the heart-tugging moments and soaring music (Alan Silvestri's music is still one of my favorite scores of all time), the film is actually a two-pronged dark comedy, a very twisted take on the American Dream. First of all, Forrest Gump is basically the angel of death. Every person he comes in contact with, from Jenny, Bubba, and Lieutenant Dan, to the various real-life historical figures he meets in his life, they all, meet terrible fates. Some (John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, and in a deleted scene, Martin Luther King Jr.) are assassinated, some (Lieutenant Dan, George Wallace) are left crippled by violence, some (Jenny, Elvis Presley) meet ignoble ends via drug use and various forms of potentially reckless behavior. For whatever reason (perhaps Gump's incredibly good luck is counterbalanced by terrible luck for anyone in his path), Forrest Gump brings suffering, misery, and death to anyone unlucky enough to meet him.

Further more, Mr. Forrest Gump represents the very worst of America - he constantly succeeds in every avenue of his life, without even trying, without even caring. While the countless people he meets try and struggle to succeed, to make a difference, they all fail or fall by the wayside while this accidental success story plows by them. Only in America, Zemeckis may be saying, could a man who knows so little, cares so little, and tries so little in fact succeed at so much by random chance, while the ambitious and determined crash and burn in his wake (yes, the similarities to the 'Homer's Enemy' episode of The Simspons are not lost on me).

The irony of course in all of this is that many of the critics are falling over The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button BECAUSE of its similarities to Forrest Gump. Its more high-brow presentation, muted emotionalism, and more straightforward storytelling allows said critics to champion this allegedly more grown-up version of the same story. Sorry folks. Forrest Gump is the more grown-up movie. It does not wear its intentions on its sleeve. It dares to have a sense of humor about its far-fetched fable, and it actually has something sneakier to say about life other than 'you live, you die, try to love while you can'. Despite its audience-pleasing flourishes and its bright, sunny atmosphere, Forrest Gump is a far more complicated, and far darker fable than the relatively simplistic The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.

And that's all I've got to say about that, right now.

Scott Mendelson

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