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The opening shot in The Forger is of a haggard John Travolta sitting in a prison cell, and the despair etched into his face suggests the actor might already be contemplating how wrong he is for this role. There are some solid elements here, but neither believability nor cohesion is among them in a contrived thriller that wraps a gritty Boston milieu redolent of a Dennis Lehane story around a sentimental heart, with a high-stakes art heist that belongs in a more robustly plotted Hollywood studio picture.
Despite a problematic script, British television veteran Philip Martin’s first feature is directed with reasonable polish and assembles enough names to land it at least minimal exposure. (Saban Films acquired the title ahead of its official Toronto premiere.) And while the casting is hit-and-miss, the film’s best assets are an enjoyable character turn from Christopher Plummer, discarding his gentlemanly manner to play a salty old-school con man; and sensitive work from Tye Sheridan (Mud) as a teen with more to worry about than just father issues.
Travolta plays master art forger Ray Cutter, a sleepy tough guy who calls in a favor from a dangerous associate to get him out of prison nine months early. The reason is honorable: Ray’s 15-year-old son, Will (Sheridan), has stage four cancer and he wants to spend some time with the kid, patching the wounds in their relationship while he still can. Neither Will nor Ray’s father, Joseph (Plummer), is pleased to see the jailbird after his four-year absence, though the busy script by Richard D’Ovidio (The Call) has no time to dig in to the grounds for their hostility, beyond generic hints that Ray let them down.
It’s gradually revealed that the early release put Ray in debt to local drug kingpin Tommy Keegan (Anson Mount), who not only has the DEA sniffing around but has also gotten himself into strife with a cartel. But — stay with me here — the cartel overlord is a major art collector, so if Ray can come up with a convincing copy of Monet’s “Woman With a Parasol” and pull off a switch with the original, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, he’s free and clear. That’s if he can trust Keegan.
In one of those tired plot drivers that seem built for cancer movies, Will gives his father a chance to win back his respect by requesting — first as a sarcastic joke, and then in earnest — three wishes.
The first is to meet his mother. That yields one of the movie’s more affecting scenes, when Ray tracks down his ex-wife, Kim (Jennifer Ehle, classing up a stock role), and forces the boozing pill-popper to clean up and spend a day with the boy. Next, Will wants to get laid, with a hooker at first seeming the most viable option. Finally, a hasty flight from cops gives him a taste for the rush of crime, so he wants in on whatever scam Ray is pulling, dragging irascible Gramps along with him.
All this is already hard enough to swallow without the embarrassment of watching Travolta, his face a single-expression mask of hangdog regret, as he daubs away at an aged canvas, straining to channel his inner Monet. There’s nothing in the script or characterization to authenticate how a second-generation Boston blue-collar criminal learned to wax lyrical about the Impressionists, let alone replicate their works and understand the intricacies of the art world.
While director Martin keeps the film moving, its implausibilities turn from holes into canyons as the museum job looms. Just to complicate things, Keegan starts getting antsy, while the undercover cop on his case, Agent Catherine Paisley (Abigail Spencer), puts the screws on Ray for information.
This has got to be the most inept DEA operation in the history of law enforcement, not helped by Spencer’s complete lack of flintiness and determination in a role that could use a cool Maria Bello type. Catherine and her partner (Travis Aaron Wade) are several steps behind everyone all the way, and despite Ray’s regular hospital trips to accompany Will for chemo sessions, it takes what seems forever for them to cotton on to the cancer factor.
But that’s the least of it. The more complicated D’Ovidio’s script gets, the less any of it rings true, right down to a cheesy Gauguin-inspired Tahitian coda that’s telegraphed from a mile off.
Production companies: Code Entertainment, in association with Solution Entertainment Group
Cast: John Travolta, Christopher Plummer, Tye Sheridan, Abigail Spencer, Anson Mount, Marcus Thomas, Travis Aaron Wade, Lyndon Smith, Jennifer Ehle
Director: Philip Martin
Screenwriter: Richard D’Ovidio
Producers: Al Corley, Bart Rosenblatt, Eugene Musso, Rob Carliner
Executive producers: Jonathan Dana, Randi Michel, Lisa Wilson, Myles Nestel, Gordon Bijelonic, Phil Stephenson
Director of photography: John Bailey
Production designer: Derek Hill
Costume designer: Abigail Murray
Editors: Peter Boyle, Joan Sobel
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Sales: WME, ICM Partners
No MPAA rating, 96 minutes
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