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

September 01, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

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."

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