It’s becoming increasingly difficult to take John Travolta seriously. He became a viral punch line after the last Academy Awards, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to admit that he hasn’t been featured in a genuinely substantial film since what seems like forever. He took the “Adele Dazeem” stuff on the chin, at least, but what can explain his consistently questionable career choices, year in and year out? Needless to say, if anyone is expecting the beginnings of a “Travoltassance” with his latest leading role in Philip Martin’s “The Forger,” they will walk away sorely disappointed. The film will instead be added to his growing list of washouts, since it plays out like the spliced scraps swiped from the editing room of a more efficient but still tiresomely average thriller.
Travolta plays Ray Cutter, a con artist with a street reputation for forging valuable paintings. The opening shots see him in his prison cell, looking at photos of his young son William (Tye Sheridan), politely sitting down next to other criminals in the mess hall, and not hanging around dangerous inmates. He tells his lawyer to contact an old associate who will ensure that a judge grants him an early release so that he can spend some quality time with his son. It’s important because William has a stage four tumor, is undergoing chemotherapy, and living with his grandfather Joseph “Gramps” Cutter (Christopher Plummer), whose parenting skills have not improved with age. However, neither his son nor his father are exactly thrilled to see Ray back in their lives: both are immediately suspicious of how he managed to get released 10 months earlier than expected.
Ray tries to keep both of them out of the loop, and visits the gangster who pulled the strings with the judge. What the criminal wants in return is Ray’s forging expertise; a European mafia boss is a big fan of classic art and wants an original Claude Monet painting that will be showcased in an upcoming exhibit. With 48 hours to think about it, Ray bumps into an undercover detective (Abigail Spencer) who is looking for a way to catch Ray’s crooked associate behind bars. Meanwhile, Ray is taking Will to his chemotherapy sessions and promises to grant him three wishes. The boy doesn’t take long to make his first one; he’d like to meet his mother, whom Ray and Gramps never talk about because she’s a drug addict. But Ray wants to be a good father, so he seeks out Kim (Jennifer Ehle), who is still living in a trailer and getting high.
Can you smell that? It’s the identifiable reek of sleep-inducing storytelling, vapidly crawling through obvious twists. Philip Martin’s background in TV movies is as clear an indication as any that “The Forger” (his very first made-for-theaters film) is deeply conformist. Some of Martin’s directorial efforts for the small screen, however, soar high above this picture (check out “Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act” with Helen Mirren, or his work on the excellent “Wallander” series with Kenneth Branagh for proof that the man is far from inept at directing gripping crime-based fare) so perhaps we should direct our disapproving words at Richard D’Ovidio, the man responsible for writing this schmaltz. His previous credits aren’t promsing; “The Call” and “Exit Wounds” to name a few culprits. Here’s an example from “The Forger” that should perfectly illustrate our disdain; Will’s third wish is to be included in his father’s crime ring, and the way the scenario unfolds is like so: son asks to join heist, dad declines, son has seizure and asks again, dad agrees. This isn’t trespassing into spoiler territory because much of the film’s suspense (we use that term loosely) is withheld until the final act, but it’s one example plucked from many borderline-childish, unrealistic tactics making feeble attempts at conveying the bond of a father and a son.
This motif, represented by three generations of no-shit-taking Cutter males, feels like a missed opportunity. Make no mistake, this is a straight-up, unabashed boys movie. Spenser’s detective, one of two major female characters, has her undercover operation accomplished in minutes, and keeps a photo of her prime target on her Smartphone while she jogs. The other is a junkie who abandoned her son. But the film world is big enough to have boys movies, and that’s OK if they manage to entertain without being misogynistic. “The Forger” does not. Plummer’s vulgar curmudgeon spends half the film condemning his son, and Travolta’s passive protagonist spends most of his time as a defeated man going through the motions. Plummer adds some hop to his performance, but the shtick gets old fast, and Travolta never looks comfortable, playing this character with the enthusiasm of a sprinter who is out of breath before he moves a muscle.
Uninspired films utilizing cinematic devices that felt old decades ago are a regrettable part of the cinematic viewing experience, and “The Forger” squarely falls into this category. The entire cast, including young Sheridan who had stacked up an impervious record with “Tree of Life,” “Mud,” and “Joe” until this thing fell into his lap, and Ehle, who ironically enough does the best job out of anyone as the damaged Kim, deserves better than Martin and D’Ovidio’s shabby attempt at a thrilling crime-drama. Even Travolta is better than this. Sadly, by continuing to star in cheap forgeries of average stories, he does himself no favors. [D]