The sweet-tempered half-wit Tom Hanks portrays in Forrest Gump has dozens of antecedents in literature and films, so it's a little tough to keep him in focus. For a start, imagine the eternal optimist Candide combined with Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin and Dustin Hoffman's savant from Rain Man. Add a dash of Chauncey Gardner, a little of Woody Allen's social chameleon Zelig and a dollop of O Lucky Man.

That's quite a burden for poor, lovable Forrest, a rural Alabama boy with a room-temperature IQ and braces on his legs, and it's the eventual downfall of Robert Zemeckis's picaresque fantasy. We are meant to feel for the wide-eyed hero from the outset--he's yet another innocent adrift in a world of violence, corruption and evil--but in the end his three decades' worth of misadventures don't add up to very much.

That means the journey has to be more fun than the destination, and quite frequently it is. By dumb luck and accident, Forrest teaches young Elvis his trademark gyrations, plays football for the Crimson Tide and becomes a Vietnam War hero. He visits three presidents at the White House, brings U.S. ping-pong to China and, through no fault of his own, becomes a shrimp boat millionaire in Louisiana.

But Zemeckis and writer Eric Roth (working from Winston Groom's comic novel) are wont to gild the satiric lily: Forrest Gump also changes into a mysterious distance-running guru and inadvertently invents the smiley-face T-shirt. By the time we catch him on Dick Cavett's show with John Lennon (thanks to some new special-effects technology), the intrusion-into-history idea has gone over the top.

Yet all Forrest Gump really wants from life--naturally--is Jenny, the abused girl-next-door (Robin Wright) whom he's loved since they were schoolchildren. Jenny, of course, has a few ups and downs of her own over the years--strip joints, drugs, Black Panther rhetoric, suicidal tendencies. Wright doesn't have much to do here, and for that we can be thankful.

Zemeckis, who's tackled fable and fantasy before with the Back to the Future series and Death Becomes Her, lays on plenty of nostalgia--visual, sartorial and musical--as he careens through the decades, and the film is wildly funny in places. But its careless glosses on the major personages and events of recent American history don't quite cut it. We're never quite sure what Zemeckis and Company are getting at. The ongoing absurdity of the national endeavor? Our natural resilience? The need, as they say in the ashrams and group therapy sessions, to rediscover the Inner Child? In any event, the movie's images of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties flip by like the pages of a scrapbook, and we never quite get Zemeckis's take on their significance. Or lack of significance.

At the center of things, the talented Hanks works his gaze into a glaze and his walk into a lurch, then buttons his corny thrift-store sports shirt all the way to the throat. This is all in the service of creating a guileless Everyman swept away on the currents of change. But many may find the village idiot bit a little thin and tedious by now, particularly since Hoffman retired the trophy in Rain Man. By the last reel, this heavily tricked-up movie trades in its halfhearted satire of behavioral extremities for sentimentality. That was clearly the easy way out. But if you're susceptible, bring Kleenex.

Still, Forrest Gump has its attractions, not the least of which are its nice surreal tilt and its strong, if brief, performances by Gary Sinise as our hero's tragically wounded platoon commander in Vietnam and Mykelti Williamson as Bubba, the fellow grunt who introduces Forrest Gump to shrimp. In fact, Bubba talks about nothing else.

Forrest, meanwhile, has trouble talking about anything. As a result, we have just as much trouble getting a handle on him, and in this case that's not good. As the man-child who saves the world, he's never quite believable. As the thwarted lover who never gives up the ship, he's a cardboard cliche. As the--uh-oh, that word again--symbol of all that's good and true and constant, he's way too facile.

So is the movie, despite its occasional dazzle, its startling juxtapositions of fiction and history and its sweet, touchy-feely temperament. This may sound odd, but Forrest Gump might have done with just a bit more venom. That would have kept us more alert, and a little sharpening would not have hurt a hero who carries his ping-pong paddle and his bedtime stories around with him in a battered old suitcase and who isn't afraid to show LBJ exactly how he got shot in the ass.


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