In 1759, the French writer Voltaire published a slim novel that lampooned a popular philosophy of his day. The philosophy was metaphysical optimism and the novel was “Candide.”
It’s not clear whether Winston Groom, author of the novel “Forrest Gump,” ever read Voltaire’s book. But the evidence is strong that he has. For the parallels between his protagonist, the dim but lovable Gump, and Voltaire’s simple-hearted Candide are just too close to be accidental.
Listen: Candide and his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, roam the world, enduring one situation after another, many of which are horrific. Candide gradually rejects his mentor’s belief that “this is the best of all possible worlds,” preferring, instead, to accept his place, sadder and wiser, in the larger order of existence. He ends up believing that happiness entails “cultivating one’s garden.”
Groom’s Gump, too, roams the world, enduring one situation after another. Many, including the war in Vietnam, are horrific. But out of the bad always springs some good.
So he, too, gradually learns to accept his place, sadder and wiser, in the larger order of existence. But since Groom’s Gump never has a philosophy of life to begin with, his Candide-like transformation is less profound. His ultimate rejection of fame and fortune lacks punch.
Which brings us to the Best Picture of 1994, Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Groom’s novel. And by now, the ideas of Voltaire are remote, indeed.
In his prodigal journey, Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump ends up achieving nearly every success imaginable. From college football star to wealthy investor, Gump (Tom Hanks) uses his simple physical skills, his good heart and immense luck to attract the good (money and fame) and survive the bad (war and death).
But what is the message here? In tying his story so closely to the profound events of the past 25 years, Zemeckis seems to be attempting to say more about life in the latter half of the 20th century than about Gump’s own struggle. Yet while he asks important questions - Why is society so violent? Why do the innocent have to suffer? - Zemeckis provides no answers. Instead, he gives us indomitable Gump, persevering single-mindedly, as if simple ignorance were handy instead of a handicap.
Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” is good-hearted and filled with eminently watchable visual effects. But it has as much to say about the meaning of life as an ostrich does about the texture of sand. (Rated PG13, C-plus).
It’s not often that a documentary about high-school basketball is touted for a Best Picture Oscar, but that’s exactly what occurred with this study of five years in the lives of two black, prep basketball players from Chicago.
We see them first as 14-year-olds, hoping for a career in the NBA. Along the way, we watch as they cope with school, teachers, coaches, family, friends and all the inherent dramas that life holds for those born in the inner city: poverty, drug abuse, potential violence and shattered hopes.
The result leaves us sadder and the boys somewhat wiser. “Hoop Dreams” is nothing less than an American saga. (Rated PG-13, A).
The Puppet Masters
Sharp direction by Stuart Orme provides a few moments of jumpstart energy for this adaptation of the Robert Heinlein novel. And that’s a surprise, considering it is a virtual carbon copy of 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Julie Warner (“Doc Hollywood”) gets lost in the father-son struggle between Eric Thal and Donald Sutherland, but that struggle does add a bit of dramatic undertone to what otherwise is a paranoid fantasy involving leech-like aliens with ominously big brains. (Rated R, B).
The pacing is quicker than roller skates on slate, and the jokes pop faster than corn (at a ratio of 10 bad to one good). Yet this little periodpiece look at the hoped-for birth of a new radio network has its charms. Chief among them is Brian Benben, whose unfortunate name can’t disguise that fact that he has talent. Michael McKean, Christopher Lloyd, Corbin Bernsen, Rosemary Clooney, Bobcat Goldthwait, Robert Klein and Harvey Korman provide cameos. George Lucas, who executive-produced from an original idea, proves that he hasn’t completely lost the talent he once possessed in, uh, force (Ba-DopBoom). (Rated PG, C-plus).
xxxx WHAT’S NEW TO VIEW Available this weekend: “Forrest Gump” (Paramount), “Terminal Velocity” (Hollywood), “The Puppet Masters” (Hollywood), “Radioland Murders” (MCA/Universal), “Hoop Dreams” (New Line). Available on Tuesday: “The Road to Wellville” (Columbia TriStar), “Trapped in Paradise” (Fox).