IF you're an admirer of that ever-popular 1990s genre, the feel-good movie, you need search no more for the most engaging film so far this summer. "Searching for Bobby Fischer" is a near-perfect specimen of its breed, displaying Hollywood in a relentlessly lovable mode.
On the plus side, the picture certainly does make you feel good. It contains no sex, violence, or villains, and the climax and finale are worthy of "Rocky" or "Strictly Ballroom" for sheer emotional lift.
On the minus side, there's no intellectual substance to back up those exhilarating feelings. While the movie claims to be about chess, for instance, it's careful not to challenge the audience with actual strategies, intricacies, or even rules of that venerable game. What it does contain are endless shots of people playing chess, with emotion-filled facial expressions and music pumping to let us know how the match is going for our hero.
This is fun to watch, and even the most jaded spectators are likely to brush away a tear during the story's touching moments. But there's nothing to remember except those nice, warm feelings once the last image has faded from the screen.
"Searching for Bobby Fischer" is based on the true story of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, as it was told by his father, Fred Waitzkin, in a book of the same title. Josh is seven years old at the beginning of the movie and loves chess more than almost anything. His heroes range from international chess champ Bobby Fischer to the hustlers who play speed-chess in the park near his home.
Hoping to encourage his talent without disturbing his normal development, his parents talk an aging chess expert into becoming his teacher. Complications arise when the teacher's methods become too intense for Josh's family to feel comfortable with, and when Josh himself becomes worried that losing a match could mean losing his father's love.
At first glance, "Searching for Bobby Fischer" is a very inspirational movie, reminding us never to quit or lose hope when the going gets tough. This is always a worthwhile message, but it wears a bit thin when you realize how many advantages Josh has to support him at those difficult moments. Besides being a genius in his chosen field, he has dedicated coaches and an intact middle-class family with no other children to divide the parents' attention.
Of course, gifted youngsters have needs and problems just as other kids do, and it's fine to address this in a movie. But the film's inspirational tone would be more convincing if the hero didn't have quite so many resources available to make sure his little problems don't grow into bigger ones.
That said, I don't want to discourage anyone from rushing off to "Searching for Bobby Fischer" at a time when wholesome, optimistic entertainments are often hard to find. The film also boasts first-class performances. It was written and directed by Steven Zaillian, whose previous film as a screenwriter - "Awakenings" - also took a poignant real-life situation and reduced it to feel-good movie magic.
* "Searching for Bobby Fischer" has a PG rating. It contains a small amount of vulgar language.