Earnest and well-acted, Steve Zaillian’s directorial debut explores the price of being a child prodigy while seeking to bring excitement to chess — becoming a kind of cerebral “The Karate Kid.” It’s a tall order, and while the film makes lots of good moves, those conflicting goals, its subject matter and even the title could check box-office performance, heralding a relatively quick
jump to its most logical playing field, homevideo.
Working in Paramount’s favor, the movie does possess some of the softer, old-fashioned values that have struck a chord of late, as evidenced by “Sleepless in Seattle.” On the flip side, the pic will have to overcome being labeled “that chess movie” and does a poor job of making the game itself accessible.
Based on a true story written by the father depicted in the film, “Searching for Bobby Fischer” focuses on Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), a relatively normal 7-year-old who, his parents discover, possesses a stunning aptitude for chess.
Max starts honing that talent playing a sped-up form of the game known as “blitz” with street hustlers in the park. Soon after, his father, Fred (Joe Mantegna), takes the boy to a chess coach (Ben Kingsley) who says that Josh could well be the second coming of Bobby Fischer, the legendary and elusive former chess champ.
Josh starts winning tournaments while Fred prods him forward, becoming near-obsessed with tapping the boy’s skill.
“Searching” is at its best when exploring the tension between wanting to develop a child’s abilities and still allowing him or her to remain a child. From that vantage point, chess can be seen as a symbol, and Fred’s pushing could be the bellowing Little League father or hand-wringing stage mother acting out their fantasies and aspirations through their kids.
Unfortunately, as scripter, Zaillian (who wrote “Awakenings”) also feels compelled to throw in “Karate Kid”-type flourishes, a stale genre to begin with that doesn’t lend itself all that well to chess.
As a result, the narrative sags in places, and the climactic match with a slightly malevolent chess whiz (Michael Nirenberg) has a stilted, bordering-on-silly quality — at least until a closing crawl puts the story back in perspective.
The narrative also feels rather ruthlessly edited, jumping around in a manner that skips needed exposition and abandons characters (Laurence Fishburne’s role as a “blitz” master, in particular, feels truncated) while failing to pause to explain even how the game is played — an oversight that may limit appreciation of Josh’s gift.
Zaillian does a better job with his actors. Mantegna adds to his portfolio with a fine, subdued performance as the suddenly driven father, while Joan Allen is strong as the protective mom and Kingsley and Fishburne share chores as the Mssrs. Miyagi of the piece.
That leaves newcomer Pomeranc, wonderfully real and wide-eyed as Josh, with a raspy voice and slight lisp recalling Linus from the Charlie Brown cartoons. One of the movie’s best devices involves the use of grainy, documentary-style snippets of Fischer to provide needed context, narrated by Josh and backed by James Horner’s uplifting score.
Technical players attack the board with gusto, from the deft incorporation of the Fischer footage to editor Wayne Wahrman and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall’s near-impossible challenge to try to make a chess match move like an NBA playoff game.
“Searching for Bobby Fischer” captures what it means to be (and raise) a child prodigy, but it comes up short on how the boy demonstrates his gift. For all its good intentions and simple charm, the hunt for an audience may prove equally elusive.