Just when did Gus Van Sant get religion? The once adventurous and near-miracle-working director (he convinced William S. Burroughs to appear in Drugstore Cowboy and coaxed the best performance Keanu Reeves will ever give in My Own Private Idaho) has been meting out increasingly uninteresting pap over the years, culminating with 1997’s Good Will Hunting.
Now—just in time for a joyously commercial holiday season—comes another well-intentioned male melodrama about the salvation of a brilliant underachiever, buoyed somewhat by an earnest performance by newbie Rob Brown and Busta Rhymes’ charismatic turn as his older brother. Brown plays 16-year-old Jamal, a gifted high school basketballer and aspiring writer. Before the contrived plot actually kicks in, the movie has a lot going for it, most having to do with Brown’s performance (startlingly, he has enough presence to hold his own with a renowned scene-chewer like Sean Connery). Jamal is a quiet, middle-class kid, dedicated to his mama, serious about his callings. But his likely end stares him in the face daily, in the form of his very nice, go-nowhere brother Terrell (Rhymes), a once-talented ballplayer who now works as a parking lot attendant at Yankee Stadium. Jamal has bigger plans but no practical way to implement them. So, he focuses on the present. When he’s not writing in his journal in his bedroom, Jamal and his boys shoot hoops on a local Bronx street court. They note that they’re being observed by someone with binoculars in a nearby apartment building. They take to calling this odd fellow The Window, meaning—symbolically, don’t you know—that even as he lacks identity, he also poses a new frame through which they might see themselves, if only they take a chance. And can’t you just picture Robin Williams sitting on a bench, in his rumply sweater, offering some wise paternal advice?
Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, Anna Paquin, Rob Brown, Busta Rhymes, April Grace
Apparently Jamal missed that movie, so he’s still intrigued by what might happen next. On a dare one afternoon, he sneaks into The Window’s apartment, where the old man jumps out from the dark with a rather sadistic whoo-ha!, frightening Jamal into running off without his backpack. The old man goes through the contents, reads and marks up the kid’s journal, and lo! Jamal has found a mentor. The red-inked comments range from the insipid “constipated thinking” to the glorious “Where are you taking me?” This last is privileged in the tv ads, and might be understood to articulate the film’s central question—how will these characters lead each other to places they might not anticipate? The problem is that viewers will have no trouble predicting most every turn along the way. And so, in the first of several non-surprises, The Window turns out to one William Forrester (Sean Connery) who, 40 years back, wrote the Great American Novel, won the Pulitzer Prize, then disappeared from public view following a few too many run-ins with his adoring public, or more to the point, people who misread his profound words (this J.D. Salinger routine is so tired by now, it might almost be more radical for an author in the movies to embrace fame and fortune).
Forrester is a crotchety coot, which ostensibly signifies his high standards: when he snipes at Jamal in a vaguely racist way, the boy is supposed to handle it, like it’s a test of deep thinking or some nonsense. It hardly need be said that this is a wholly disturbing test to run on a 16-year- old, no matter how splendid his writing skills, but the film treats the episode as evidence of Forrester’s sore nerves and Jamal’s innate sagacity and patience. As imagined by Mike Rich’s simplistic script, Jamal is caught between hard places—the self-righteous Forrester makes him promise never to reveal his identity to anyone, even though this means he has to lie to people about where he is and what he’s doing every afternoon. Jamal is not so much a character as a device in a movie full of guidance-seeking White Folks. He’s the Idealized Young Black Male, a nonthreatening, proper-English-speaking, polite-conversation-making, shy-acting counterweight to all those scary pimps, hustlers, and foul-mouthed comedians favored by MTV and the local news. This isn’t to say that Jamal isn’t—or can’t be—representative in his right, but to say that the movie treats him like he’s exceptional rather than typical.
That is, he’s bookish as well basketballish. Though Jamal has been underachieving in class—a plot point catering to the stereotype that black students want to get bad grades to fit in with their bad-grade-getting peers, a stereotype that lets school administrations off the hook—his dazzling test scores reveal he is a secret genius. True to its cliched form, the film delivers this non-surprise with the obligatory scene where the teacher (April Grace) calls Jamal’s mother in to school, to inform her of her child’s amazing abilities—somehow, despite the movie’s own suggestion that Jamal and his mother have a strong relationship, she’s missed this crucial detail. At this point a pricey Manhattan private school that’s looking to win a basketball trophy recruits him. There he meets a friendly white girl in a cute school uniform, Claire (Anna Paquin), who happens to be the headmaster’s daughter. Their friendship hints at yet another story cliche, this one of the Romeo-and-Juliet-ish variety, but the movie loses interest in that angle, and pretty much leaves Paquin hanging. She spends most of her on screen time framed in reaction shots—watching Jamal perform on the court or in class.
He’s certainly worth watching, but the movie can’t seem to think of what to do with him. The most thrilling, obviously fetishized scenes—aside from some smooth court action, where Jamal’s primary opponent is the school’s only other black student, conveniently for the film’s general avoidance of dicey racism and race politics—take place when Jamal is at the typewriter. At first he’s nervous, so Forrester gives his student a bit of his own (Forrester’s) prose as a jumpstart, telling him to type out the first paragraph and then make it “his” (let’s just say that this is a peculiar instruction technique). The kid takes to writing on this manual typewriter like nobody’s business, and starts churning out great essays , so great that they spark suspicion in his English teacher, who happens to be played by Saligeri (that is, F. Murray Abraham), apparently still raging against his own mediocrity. There’s a ridiculous classroom showdown in which Jamal challenges Mr. Mediocre’s knowledge of what famous writer wrote what famous passage (they go through Coleridge, Twain, Kipling, et. al.), which basically sets him up for a big vengeance play by the teacher. That this play (occasioned by a writing contest) comes at the same moment, dramatic-arc-wise, that Jamal is called on to take the team to a championship ensures a jam- packed climax. And of course, all this happens at the same time that Jamal and Forrester grapple with their friendship, mutual obligations, and, of course, the looming question of whether or not Forrester will ever get the heck out of his apartment. The answer to this question is, like most everything else in the film, no surprise.