The Age of Innocents

Here's a movie that could have fallen flat on its face. By all rights, its juxtaposition of a mildly retarded Southern man and the Big Events of the past 30 years of American history, rendered partly through the trickery of Industrial Light & Magic, should have resulted in a cutesy and repetitive two hours.

But almost entirely because of Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump works pretty much from start to finish. Ever since A League of Their Own, Hanks has accomplished something impressive in his performances: he has become a credible American naif in an age that worships ass-kicking. And it's his relaxed and transparent performance that keeps Forrest Gump moving.

The film opens with Gump seated on a park bench, telling the story of his extraordinary childhood to a complete stranger. His momma (Sally Field) said he was born with "a spine as crooked as a politician" and he has to trudge through life wearing leg braces. We might assume that he had polio, but given that Gump's problems are mental as well as physical -- his IQ is a mere 75 -- he isn't reflective enough, and doesn't have enough of a vocabulary, to do much naming. Having leg braces was simply his condition.

His nasty little neighbors give him the Biblical treatment for the afflicted outsider: they stone him every chance they get. Only a neighbor girl, Jenny (Robin Wright), treats him as an equal. In these opening moments, the film seems to offer a satire on gothic Southern ways, from early '60s crackerhood to the depths of humiliation Gump's smothering and loving mother will endure to get her malformed baby treated as the equal of everyone else. Diet Flannery O'Connor, anyone?

But when, at Jenny's urging, the crippled Gump tries to run away from the bullies and a miracle occurs, the film takes on a lighter and more expansive spirit, though one still laced with satire. Touched by God, Gump is going to be larger than life, whether he wants to be or not. Aided at times by special effects reminiscent of Zelig (Gump gets plugged into footage with JFK and LBJ, among others, and is made to talk to them) and propelled also by the film's harrowing Vietnam sequence, Gump traipses through the football, assassinations, protests, wars and fads of the '60s and '70s.

The movie could easily have either taken itself too seriously or played Gump's brushes with history for too many laughs. But instead, Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis get the balance about right. Most of Gump's meetings with presidents are funny, but since they're grounded in the unselfconscious pathos of Gump's character, they're touching as well.

Gump glides basically untouched through history, but Jenny suffers enough for both of them. Her father molests and beats her. Her SDS boyfriend beats her. The cocaine days of the '70s eat her alive. Her appalling upbringing leaves her with just enough survival instinct that she returns to Gump's accepting and uncritical arms from time to time. Of course, when he asks her to marry him, she can't quite take things that far. He does have an IQ of 75, after all. Happily, wild girl Jenny is written so that her refusal of Gump's proposal seems induced as much by her fear of taking advantage of his generosity as by any distaste for his limitations.

This, then, is the film's structure: Gump bounces almost unscathed through the eras while Jenny takes a beating until they periodically reunite, at which point she goes out for more abuse. In the film's stronger and more satiric first half, Gump's unquestioning innocence is an amusing counterpoint to the machinations of presidents -- as well as of almost anyone else with an average intelligence. The film's second half, however, loses much of its edge. The novelty of the special effects diminishes, and at times -- as when Gump takes to repeating his momma's wisdom that "life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to find" -- the movie seems ready to capsize into sentimentality.

By the last section of the film we're following Gump's relationship with a legless Army corporal (Gary Sinise) whom Gump saved during the war. The crippled Vietnam-vet scenes are much too familiar. They even include moments in which the vet rages at God to "come and get me."

But Hanks' performance remains constant; he keeps the film afloat. I normally object to movies that rely on voice-over narration, but Hanks' simple readings make even that device work. When the story threatens to fall apart, Hanks' soft Southern syllables keep it focused. I liked being able to wonder how much of the tale Gump was making up.

Unfortunately, Forrest Gump ends about 20 minutes too late. Its final working-out is pat, and when one of the major characters announces that he's dying (in the early '80s) of an unnamed virus, you feel that the filmmakers have gone to the popular-history well once too often. Not coincidentally, the film's thudding conclusion comes with the moment that Gump's storytelling ends and the story begins to happen in the present.

As a social comedy, some of Forrest Gump's laughs are more earned than others. As a play for our emotions, however, almost all of the sighs and tears that it provokes seem earned. You can't say that about many weepies.

Forrest Gump.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis. With Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Robin Wright and Gary Sinise.

Rated PG-13.
140 minutes.

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