One hopes that the millions of Americans seeing "Forrest Gump" every week aren't taking its lessons too much to heart. The cultlike vogue for simple-mindedness, which until recently seemed safely confined to the nation's 14 million adolescent boys, has gone mainstream with the huge success of "Forrest Gump" -- a movie that says yes, it is possible to be dim and nice at the same time, Beavis and Butt-head notwithstanding. "Forrest Gump" celebrates innocence and slow-wittedness -- not just as a handicap to be surmounted, but the key to worldly success. Tom Hanks's character, who fondly quotes his mother on the point that "stupid is as stupid does," isn't even an idiot savant. He is an idiot courant, whose singular genius is to be able to run like hell -- on his college football team, in Vietnam and all through the 1970s, where he turns up again and again in just the right place to become famous, make a fortune or accidentally coin an immortal aphorism. As a fictional character, he's the classic fool. But a nation that makes heroes out of simpletons is usually on the ropes. Spain's decline began just about when "Don Quixote" was written, in 1615. No one could take France seriously after they knew about Jerry Lewis.
The phenomenal success of "Forrest Gump," which has sold more than $100 million worth of tickets since it opened July 6 in the teeth of Arnold's "True Lies," is a mystery not even its own creators can entirely penetrate. "I'm surprised this has hit this cultural chord the way it has," said director Robert Zemeckis. "You figure it out." "There's no bad guys, or suitcases full of money," Hanks mused last week. "Nobody is trying to solve a mystery, or save the life of a cow. This is something audiences have never seen before." Even the book, by Winston Groom, which had a minor success when it was published in 1986, is now a best seller with 850,000 copies in print, and the heavily nostalgic soundtrack is selling faster than "Sleepless in Seattle," which sold more than 3 million copies. "Forrest Gump" has tapped the country's deep wellsprings of simplicity and gullibility. "You don't have any problem believing that in this amazing epic [Gump] has met three different presidents, or that he played Ping-Pong in China or won a medal in the army," Hanks says. Even given the film's astonishing special effects, can that really be true? People aren't even embarrassed to say they like it for silly reasons, like they're from Alabama, and Bear Bryant appears in it for a second. "Bear Bryant's almost as big as Elvis back home," said Rachel Ivy, who saw "Gump" while visiting New York last week.
But most of all people seem moved by the other quality Forrest Gump evinces, decency. "I was so thrilled to see a film about decency doing so well," Barbra Streisand -- one of the movie industry's leading advocates of simplicity and humility -- said when she stopped her show in Anaheim, Calif., last week to salute Hanks in the audience. Hanks, of course, is not only the hottest actor in movies today but one who personifies decency; in "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Philadelphia" he was more decent than Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda on their best days. "I saw characters [in Gump] as metaphors for different aspects of the American character," said Zemeckis. "Forrest is honest, tolerant, decent, good and loyal -- all of the good American virtues." (Not so honest, though, that he doesn't swallow his doubts and take $25,000 to endorse a brand of table-tennis paddle that he doesn't actually use. But then, he uses the money to build a local church.) Producer Wendy Finerman says she got a letter from a woman who took her 11-year-old boy to see "Forrest Gump." On the way home, the boy said, "You know what, Mom? I'm going to try to be a little nicer."
Good for the lad, although he is in danger of getting the idea that it doesn't matter in life whether you're smart. This is a message that Gump's contemporaries, who would be in their late 40s now, are ready to hear. Baby boomers have spent their lives trying to be the smartest and toughest, but only a few can reap all the rewards from it. How comforting to imagine, if only for two hours on a summer afternoon, that one could go just as far in life by being simple. When Forrest Gump spots a friend on shore, he jumps off his fishing boat and swims over to him, leaving the driverless vessel to crash into a pier. Does he lose everything? No, a hurricane wipes out the competition, leaving him to scoop up an entire bayful of shrimp. Soon he has a fleet of boats and an investment in a new company he assumes is in the fruit business, from its name, "Apple."
Yes, it would be nice to be Forrest Gump, to enjoy the friendship of beautiful Robin Wright and also the bittersweet pang of her loss, to be a war hero and an antiwar hero at the same time. "Forrest Gump has no opinion about anything," Zemeckis says -- and what a relief that would be for most of us. "Forrest Gump" leaves you feeling both uplifted by the hero's example and superior to him; you're sure there's a message but the closest you can come to finding one is "be nice." Stupidity in life is surely a lot less fun than it looks in the movies. But wouldn't it be fun to be stupid enough to have been the first person to say, "Have a nice day"?