Travolta, Heist Drama Not Quite Convincing Enough in 'Forger'

Directed by: Philip Martin; Runtime: 92 minutes
Grade: C-

John Travolta continues to search for the right kind of role for his maturing poise, shifting gears from a flamboyant CIA operative in From Paris With Love and a brutal mass kidnapper in Taking of Pelham 123 to a murderous, thick-accented Serbian soldier in Killing Season. There's one thing that all these films have in common, aside from lackluster critical and audience reception: Travolta plays colorful caricatures of the renegade mindset, exaggerating traits and borrowing ticks from his previous works that end up being, by and large, unconvincing. The Forger takes the tempo down a few notches by giving him a pensive, muted ex-con on an emotional journey back into the world of organized crime, one where Travolta's simply allowed to direct his dramatic talent into a genuine individual. Birdsong director Philip Martin makes the most of this patchy, unfocused heist-drama hybrid by extracting suitable performances and a flair of appreciation for the art of painting; however, even with this restrained character, it still works against a cumbersome turn from Travolta as the emotive cornerstone.

There are a lot of moving pieces in The Forger that aren't limited to its expected orchestration of an Ocean's Eleven brand of "last hoorah" heist, since the history and current conditions of imprisoned criminal Raymond J. Cutter (Travolta) tend to be equally as important. For unknown reasons at first, Cutter chooses to pull a few strings by making a phone call to a former boss, the ruthless and unpredictable Keegan (Anson Mount), to cut his sentence by ten months, even though things don't appear to be all that bad in his prison environment. His early release comes at a price: Keegan demands that he must throw together a credible forgery of a late-1800s painting -- "Woman With a Parasol", by Claude Monet -- against a highly demanding deadline, then switch it out of its museum installation. Seems like Cutter would know he'd have to repay this kindness in a big way instead of waiting out the ten months, but once it's revealed that his son, Will (an appropriately pensive Tye Sheridan), has a terminal and rapidly progressive illness, the pieces of his rationale start to fit together.

A curious, lopsided mixture of mawkish family melodrama and incremental crime-planning takes shape in The Forger, complicated by Cutter's desire to fulfill a mini bucket list for Will at the same time, forcing a lot of things to transpire in an incredibly short amount of time. Even with a different lead, it'd be difficult to buy into the legitimacy of this chronology, but Travolta's subdued, mumbling performance as Cutter doesn't do it any favors. Like this, he's essentially limited to one hardened expression and an inconsistent New England accent, over-correcting the intensity of his previous roles. Granted, Cutter has plenty of reasons to be dour, from his son's prognosis and his head-butting with his father (a cheeky, tenacious Christopher Plummer) over the conditions of his release to the uncertain demands of the counterfeit job, but Travolta's inexpressive responses to any dramatic conflicts never really underscores the character's inner turmoil. Without that dramatic anchor in such a character-driven piece, attention instead starts to wander towards the common sense of the situation, which isn't a good thing.

That's a shame, too, because the premise hiding underneath the messiness of The Forger has a nice thematic edge that occasionally stands out, mostly whenever Cutter focuses on the painting aspect of the job. Travolta might not be compelling as an ex-criminal here, someone who can victoriously bounce back during a gang beating and who can make long jumps across rooftops, but there's something that works about him as an unsuccessful painter who took to forging artwork as a lucrative outlet. Wedged between uninteresting heist machinations and heavy-handed wish fulfillment for his son, Cutter studies the nuanced brushstrokes of the original Monet work, breaks out his easel and other supplies, and starts down the path of creating a credible reproduction of a masterwork from 1875, unbelievable as it may be. His methodology makes some headway towards saving the film, adding richness to the subtle tension of the drama where he's reverently duplicating the techniques and conveyed emotion of the piece, leading one to ponder why he didn't stick with his creative endeavors considering his passion.

The lead-up to the heist itself builds very little suspense in its flow, though, weighed down by a hesitant police investigation -- equally powered with compassion and diligence by Agent Paisley (Abigail Spencer) -- and an unsurprising endgame to Will's final wishes, the consequences of The Forger's wandering, many-sided intentions. That lack of culminated anticipation can be felt throughout the job itself: it's a messy, humdrum climax in both subdued attitude and common sense, an uninteresting switcharoo event not without blunders in their strategy, execution, and general believability. Throughout, the film tries to have its cake and eat it too by depicting three generations of Cutter men who exercise aptitude and fallibility as criminals when it matters, feeding into a sneaky twist and a heartening resolution to Raymond's ordeal based on redemption and fatherly bonding. This attempt at painting a satisfying ending with broad strokes seems blissfully unaware of the phoniness dragging the big picture down, though.

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