Calling Philip Martin’s The Forger “derivative” isn’t meant to be a hack joke—it is derivative of so many different things at once that it comes out in the end as something almost singular. That’s not praise, mind; this movie is confusing, and only interesting in the sense that Richard D’Ovidio’s script should be an object lesson in what not to do (and certainly in what brand of dialogue to not give to John Travolta). Simultaneously a gritty urban drama about a family of working-class petty criminals, a heist flick and a story about how terminal illness tests the bonds of family and fatherhood, The Forger is a testament to Martin tripling down on this confusion.
Like a parasol caught in the wind, the film swings between the emotions normally associated with each genre. And oh, that reference is intentional, because guess what else this film is. Answer: It’s a love letter to Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son (1875). In fact, the film’s attempt to dovetail the sad life of petty criminal and master forger of paintings Ray Cutter (Travolta) with Camille Monet’s afternoon stroll with her son is so ham-fisted it almost manages to bind the rest of the film’s disparate influences together. Well…not in the way it’s intended to, of course; it’s just really funny that this crime/heist flick keeps pausing to celebrate impressionism. In fact, the film’s biggest flaws are impressionistic: it is simultaneously too loud and too quiet, too gritty and too reserved, and too likely to devolve into maudlin speeches.
See, Ray’s son Will (Tye Sheridan) has an inoperable brain tumor, and chemo isn’t working. Ray’s wife Kim (Jennifer Ehle) is a drug addict who hasn’t seen their son in years. Ray himself is in prison. Desperate to see Will and with 11 months left to go on his sentence, he convinces a local crime lord to bribe a judge to let him out. Once he’s out, his father Joseph (Christopher Plummer) demands to know why he would do that, even though Joseph is well aware that Will might not have 11 months to live. The tension between grandfather and father and son is so fabricated and baseless that the film just kind of shrugs it off, like a coat it thought it should wear because that’s what all the other gritty urban crime dramas are wearing these days. Aesthetically, after all, the film is clearly going for “gritty.” That it often looks cheap is part of the problem, but even where it succeeds at “gritty” there’s no sign as to why Martin thought this was the aesthetic it should have, except for the fact that this is the aesthetic most Boston crime dramas have. But then The Forger realizes, “I’m not like those films! I’ve got to get to the Monet of it all.” Fortunately, the crime lord who got Ray out earlier needs him to forge Woman with a Parasol.
“Fortunately,” because John Travolta-as-Ray talking about Monet is amazing. For example, after Will asks if the painting will be hard to fake, Ray gets introspective: “Oh no, you don’t fake this. You can’t copy it. You have to get inside it. It’s hard to explain. But if I could feel what he was feeling, maybe I could do it.” That’s not an exact quote—the 80 billion extra syllables Travolta throws in there have been removed—but you get the point: Ray is a master at forging paintings, but he can’t forge his own life to look like what is in those paintings. It’s hilarious because Martin thinks this is far more compelling and subtle and impressionistic than it actually is—he even has Will whisper, “It’s beautiful”—but then also ignores the fact that Camille Monet died in 1879, a mere four years before the original was made. Monet also painted her on her deathbed. Guess that painting wasn’t as inspiring?
Will make-a-wishes that Ray teach him some of the craft before he dies; father and son bond. And then, after Ray gives the worst explanation of the Industrial Revolution to Will that’s ever been documented on film, it’s on to One Last Heist. But, seriously: the last third of this film just does not give a shit. It is boring and, again, confusing and tragically involves Abigail Spencer, who deserves far better than this.
The final act even manages to render all of the forgery process stuff—perhaps the only interesting aspect of the film, even though Ray’s assertion that the Industrial Revolution started after 1875 in France makes one wonder if any of it was even cursorily researched at all—unnecessary in retrospect. As in: the heist probably didn’t even need to happen. Or didn’t happen? It’s seriously hard to tell. The lesson of The Forger is that Ray is an honorable guy who takes his craft seriously so even if he’s a petty criminal he’s also a good man who got a raw deal from all of those clichés he’s been dealt in life…probably? Travolta does look sad throughout, but it’s more a consistent pinched-hemorrhoid sad than it is the various sadnesses of a man whose son is dying. Maybe that’s not a fair assessment—who knows? That’s just one person’s impression.
Director: Philip Martin
Writer: Richard D’Ovidio
Starring: John Travolta, Christopher Plummer, Abigail Spencer, Jennifer Ehle, Tye Sheridan, Victor Gojcaj
Release Date: April 24, 2015
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.