Mr. Holland's Opus

Forrest Gump lives in spirit in this overbearing tear-jerker that takes two and a half hours to cover three baby-boom decades in an effort to prove that nice guys finish first, at least in the hearts of academy voters. The 48-year-old Richard Dreyfuss may win an Oscar nomination just for dying his hair back to its Jaws-era brown and then letting the white grow in again as he moves through the turbulent life and times of Glenn Holland, a musician with dreams of composing the great American symphony.

Instead, Glenn must go to work as a high school music teacher to support his wife, Iris (Glenne Headly), and the baby on the way. No matter. Principal Helen Jacobs (Olympia Dukakis) sees him as a budding Mr. Chips. He inspires uptight clarinet student Gertrude Lang (Alicia Witt) to loosen up and enjoy the music. Soon his class is teeming with Gertrudes and reverberating with rock & roll. Student vocalist Rowena Morgan, beautifully played and sung by Jean Louisa Kelly, almost tempts Glenn away from his loyal Iris with a torchy rendition of "Someone to Watch Over Me."

Bob Dole needn't fret; sex isn't in the cards but schmaltz is, ladled on by screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan (A Home of Our Own) and director Stephen Herek (The Mighty Ducks) as if they were being paid by the gallon. The Holland son, Cole, is born deaf, which means he can never hear his father's music. Glenn retaliates by refusing to join Iris in learning sign language. He doesn't realize that stupid is as stupid does until Cole is grown. In the film's most egregiously sentimental scene — and, believe me, that's saying something — Glenn sings and signs a version of John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" to the son he has virtually ignored. Tissues all around. But the film that might have matched Dreyfuss' passion and said something honest, pertinent and moving about undervalued teachers and endangered arts programs sinks in a bog of sentiment that is no more nourishing than Gump's damned box of chocolates.

From The Archives Issue 727: February 8, 1996
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