The Forger


Starring John Travolta, Christopher Plummer, Tye Sheridan, Abigail Spencer and Jennifer Ehle. Screenplay by Richard D’Ovidio. Directed by Philip Martin.

This is a rough one because I don’t much enjoy kicking a guy when he’s down. And besides, we’ve already been here many times before with John Travolta. Over these past forty years he’s proven time and again that there’s no career skid he can’t pull out of when you least expect it, nor is there any glorious comeback he can’t sabotage just as quickly. I’m at a loss to name another contemporary icon who has been in so many genuinely terrible films, and yet so many of my favorites as well.

These days he’s mainly spoken about in terms of his mysterious loyalty to a scary religious cult and an alarming inability to pronounce names or judge boundaries of personal space during televised awards ceremonies, but I still go see John Travolta movies. It’s easy to forget, but in the right roles he’s a damn good actor and an even better movie star.

The Forger is not one of those roles. In fact, it’s more like a sad lesson in everything that John Travolta shouldn’t do. We fell in love with this guy for his goofball magnetism and dim-bulb swagger – the cheesy “cool” redeemed by a dancer’s grace. Travolta is always at his best when he’s playing the third or fourth-smartest person in the room. (His scene-stealing supporting turn in Oliver Stone’s Savages – as a cheerfully corrupt DEA agent only gradually realizing how far he’s in over his head – probably would’ve been another one of Travolta’s vaunted “comeback performances” had anyone actually seen the film.)

I’m speaking as a notorious aficionado of bad John Travolta movies when I say that The Forger is a chore to sit through. (And if you folks only knew how many times I’ve watched his mid-eighties stink-bomb trifecta of Staying Alive, Two of a Kind and Perfect, you’d revoke my press credentials faster than a corrupt Boston PR agency.) It’s a startlingly amateurish film with minuscule production values, spotty audio and a bunch of drably dressed, underlit sets so cheap you’re surprised to find actual movie stars standing around them.

Travolta mopes his way through the title role as Ray Cutter, a brilliant jailbird art forger from those mythical movie-land mean streets of Boston – where everyone talks in outlandish accents and they never seem to have trouble finding a parking space. And of course they’re all also gangsters. Ray is able to land an unexpected early parole by calling in a favor from local boss Keegan (the pornographically-named Anson Mount, who you might remember famously claimed Britney Spears’ onscreen virginity in the camp classic Crossroads.)

Ray needed to come home because his teenage son (Tye Sheridan of Mud) has an inoperable brain tumor. Problem is that it cost Keegan fifty grand to bribe the judge who let Ray out of the joint, so now our hero owes the bad guy a favor, and it’s not a small one. Ray is tasked with faking Monet’s The Promenade, Woman with a Parasol. This would be daunting enough on its own, but it turns out Ray also needs to swipe the original from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and replace it with his phony copy, because the most feared and powerful gangster in this major metropolitan city apparently doesn’t know any other criminals who could possibly pull off a heist and thus must entrust it to amateurs.

This turns into an icky Make-A-Wish scenario for Travolta and his estranged, sickly moppet, with the two of them bonding as they scratch off items on Junior’s bucket list like “going to a whorehouse” and “helping dad at work.” Christopher Plummer tags along as Grandpa, playing an off-the-boat donkey Irish caricature with an accent borrowed from magically delicious cereal commercials of a bygone era. There’s a tough-talking DEA agent (Abigail Spencer) aiming to bring down Keegan, but as the only woman in the movie who isn’t either a junkie or a prostitute she unfortunately happens to be a complete fucking idiot who gets played like a piano by our leading man.

It’s hard to think of an actor more ill-suited for this role than Travolta, all downcast, mumbling and outsmarting everyone else in the film while barely once cracking a smile. He suffocates that irrepressible charisma, spending the movie brooding and citing occasional art history footnotes. The actor’s increasingly bizarre tonsorial choices as of late are no help here either, with an isolated pubic outcropping jutting from somewhere beneath his chin-dimple, and an almost comical weave springing strands of grey from Travolta’s forehead like an unruly spider plant. (Sometimes I like to imagine the discussion that presumably took place before filming Savages, when Oliver Stone told him he’d have to ditch the rug.)

Indifferently directed by Philip Martin (who I am astounded to discover won an Emmy for Helen Mirren’s last Prime Suspect hurrah) The Forger slouches forward with the kind of energy that suggests everybody involved just wanted to get it overwith already. The movie never fully commits to the melodramatically tacky cancer-kid aspect and even the climactic heist is played as an afterthought.

I also find it odd that this film was made with the Museum of Fine Arts’ full cooperation. (The entire staff is thanked by name in the closing credits.) Given Boston’s colorful art-heist history, one might perhaps assume that a sullen fat dude easily robbing a priceless painting assisted only by his terminally-ill son and a drunken leprechaun would be considered poor brand management for the august institution. But then what do I know about such things? I’m just a guy who watches too many crappy John Travolta movies.

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