While it’s hard to call a film with Mel Gibson “a sleeper,” Warner Bros. has a big, rousing, old-fashioned romance hit on its hands, if it can just get people to take the ride. A perfect “women’s picture” alternative to action fare and kid-oriented sequels, “Forever Young” may be one of those slow-building successes, a la “Fried Green Tomatoes,” that’s still bringing ’em in well after some of the holiday’s boom-bust films have exhausted themselves.
The picture would seem to be a tough sell conceptually (no one beat down the door to see “Late for
Dinner”) and the title probably doesn’t help. Still, the script by Jeffrey Abrams and Steve Miner’s direction seldom strike a false chord — even when they’re tugging shamelessly at the heartstrings in almost “E.T.”-like fashion–and WB should build positive word-of-mouth with two weekends of sneaks prior to the wide opening.
The action begins in 1939, as test pilot Daniel (Gibson) can’t bring himself to propose to Helen (Isabel Glasser), right up until the moment she walks in front of a speeding truck.
Helen ends up in a coma, and the distraught Daniel volunteers for an experiment in which his best friend Harry (George Wendt), in an early test of cryogenics, will freeze him for a year.
Cut to 1992, when Daniel is thawed out by two mischievous 10-year-olds and, through a series of circumstances, moves in with one of the boys (Elijah Wood, of “Radio Flyer” and “Avalon”) and his single mom (Jamie Lee Curtis).
To elaborate beyond that would spoil much of the fun, but with the army in pursuit of their long-forgotten experiment gone awry, the film takes a number of clever and extremely satisfying turns — tinged with poignance and plenty of humor stemming from Daniel’s Rip Van Winkle-like slumber.
Miner, who directed TV’s “The Wonder Years” and “Elvis” in addition to the modest feature “Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken,” brings the same dreamy quality to this production, augmented by the sumptuous ’30s sets and lush setting for the climactic moment.
Remarkably, the director manages to toe the line of melodrama without ever slipping over into camp, balancing those elements with humor and suspense to carry “Forever Young,” if not over the moon, at least up in the clouds.
The cast is equally splendid and Gibson–for all the talk of his breakthrough into “serious” roles by doing “Hamlet”– demonstrates his versatility with a performance that captures the best, less-lethal elements of his on-screen persona.
Curtis conveys a great deal with her limited role as the caring mom, while Wood proves far more engaging than that other moppet whose prominence is based on staying home alone. Wendt and Joe Morton appear in what amount to cameos as sympathetic scientists of different eras.
“Forever Young” also shines technically, as Russell Boyd’s camera adoringly captures Gibson’s boyish charms in the manner of an old matinee idol, and Jerry Goldsmith delivers yet another tremendous score tinged with adventure, romance and melancholy.
Kudos also to Dick Smith, et al., for the terrific makeup, which, like the movie, should wear extremely well.