There are few contemporary actors who can match John Travolta’s command of the camera when he’s comfortable in a role. Travolta’s capable of holding the screen with a seemingly instinctual energy that’s simultaneously playful and vulnerable, informing his iconoclasm with an affecting air of democracy. Unfortunately, when Travolta isn’t comfortable in a role, all of his winning qualities turn inward on him and curdle, and one can feel his panic as he works resolutely, and in these cases hopelessly, at conjuring charm. The poignant thing about Travolta’s work in The Forger is that it, like his other bad performances, isn’t the result of egotistical coasting. Unbridled earnestness lurks at the core of the actor’s turn as Raymond Cutter, a robber and master art forger, and it embalms all of his gestures in mood-killing self-consciousness. For instance, he can’t merely have Raymond tip his coffee cup at his son, Will (Tye Sheridan), in a casual attempt at connection; he must momentarily freeze and strain for the pathos that’s already inherent in the basic conception of the encounter.
To be fair, Raymond is supposed to be desperate and over-compensating, as he’s just gotten out of the pen to bond with Will, who’s dying of a brain tumor, after procuring early release in a series of murky circumstances that require him to, of course, pull one last job as a criminal. But there are no grace notes in Travolta’s performance, only thudding, literal-minded character tics. The actor has given Raymond a Boston accent that’s awful even by the standards of bad Boston accents, and he fails to bring to life the mix of sensitivity and brutality that would obviously inform the personality of someone who’s capable of beating up a half-dozen goons one day and painting an elaborate forgery of Monet’s The Promenade, Woman with a Parasol the next. Travolta is so palpably uncertain with himself in this film that he even turns a simple movement like the holding of a paintbrush into inadvertent shtick, rendering it merely a contrived breather from a boring heist plot that takes forever to crystallize.
The Forger doesn’t deserve a great or even good Travolta performance anyway. The film is a sluggish, obvious fusion of a disease-of-the-week tearjerker with a comedic family crime romp that abounds in stiflingly over-emphasized Boston-crime-movie details, such as the ash-gray streets, tattoo parlors, the Red Sox caps, and so on, in addition to the requisite cartoon accents. The film’s one minor pleasure is Christopher Plummer, who occasionally enlivens the proceedings with a performance, as an old papa crook, that’s so self-amusingly false and theatrical as to represent a veteran’s canny act of survival. Rather than creating an actual character, which Plummer recognizes as a wasted effort in these circumstances, he indulges an impression of Maureen O’Hara. Plummer navigates the waters of this junk with considerably greater panache than his co-star, momentarily fashioning a lively, seemingly self-contained genre film within a deadly joyless one.