Hollywood's July Foursome

IN THE COURSE OF "FORREST GUMP" you will discover how it came about that the title character, a sweet-natured simpleton from rural Alabama with a two-digit IQ, taught Elvis how to move. That's just for starters. Forrest (Tom Hanks) is an idiot for all seasons, and his life story encompasses - and sometimes brings about-most of the major events of four stormy decades of American life. You'll see how this boy with braces on his legs became a Crimson Tide football star and a Vietnam War hero. How he met JFK, LBJ and inadvertently caused the downfall of Rich Nixon. How he came to be playing Ping-Pong in China, met the Black Panthers and ended up on the cover of Fortune. You'll see him chatting with John Lennon on "The Dick Cavett Show." Forrest was even the guy who inspired the bumper sticker S--T HAPPENS.

As Hollywood summer movies go, this picaresque fable is definitely not the same old same old. Adapted from Winston Groom's comic novel by Eric Roth, directed with great flair and technical brilliance by Robert Zemeckis, "Forrest Gump" is inventive, sometimes hilarious, and it pushes so many nostalgia buttons you can't help but stay engrossed even when the tale starts to ramble. Yet the whole seems less than the sum of its parts.

Forrest himself is like a combination of Candide, Rain Man, Zelig, Chauncey Gardiner and the guy from "Regarding Henry." Hanks, who can do no wrong as an actor, turns this fantastical conceit into funny, touching flesh and blood; even his elbows are eloquent. As the troubled, beautiful Jenny, the abused hometown girl he loves with doggish devotion throughout his life, Robin Wright gives a sketchy role grace and gravity. And in a season top-heavy with special effects, "Forrest Gump's" are truly remarkable. Everyone will be astonished by the "Zelig"-like insertions, which place the hero inside archival footage, shaking hands with Kennedy, popping up next to George Wallace, talking with Tricky Dick. No less impressive are the effects you may not recognize: using digital computer technology to create vast crowds at a Washington anti-war rally, or to amputate the legs of Gary Sinise's embittered Lieutenant Dan, the officer Forrest saves in battle and later teams up with in the shrimping business. Zemeckis, Ken Ralston and Industrial Light & Magic did state-of-the-art effects together in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Death Becomes Her," and their work here is groundbreaking. And a little scary-we've entered an era where photographic reality can't be trusted.

But what does "Forrest Gump" add up to? For all its ambition, the movie ends up using great historical events in the service of a dubious sentimentality. As satire, it's surprisingly toothless, especially coming from the man who directed the gleefully savage "Used Cars" (1980). As a tear-jerker, which unfortunately is what it ultimately becomes, it left me unmoved. Roth's screenplay significantly departs from the Groom novel in its maudlin resolution of the love story, and the more it focuses on the lovers the less psychologically credible it becomes. The movie wants to use Forrest Gump every which way-as dunce, as idiot savant, as the one pure soul in an impure world, as faithful lover. It's a tribute to Hanks and Zemeckis that this all-purpose symbol is as fetching as he is. The world according to Gump is certainly an enjoyable place to visit. But its core is disappointingly soft and elusive.