Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures - Every journey begins with a single move.

If you've been searching for a "stand-up-and-cheer movie" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone), a film "not only to enjoy but the cherish" (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times), look no further -- you've found Searching For Bobby Fischer.

Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) is a typical seven-year-old who happens to be a chess prodigy. Joe Mantegna stars as Josh's father, a sportswriter determined to see his son become a champion. Searching For Bobby Fischer is about their heartwarming journey of discovery, as a father and son learn the one thing neither can afford to lose: their love for each other.

Laurence Fishburne and Ben Kingsley deliver powerful supporting performances in this uplifting film that's rich with all the promise and wonder of life.

Director: Steven Zaillian
Cast: Max Pomeranc, Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Nirenberg, Robert Stephens
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Cinematography, 1994.
Box Office: Gross: $7.27 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - single layer; 14 chapters; rated PG; 109 min.; $29.95; 7/11/00.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - Fred Waitzkin | Score soundtrack - James Horner

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/F

Subjects less likely than chess to make good movies:

1) Paint drying;
2) Old people sleeping.

Wait - scratch that last one, because it could be interesting; old folks probably make a lot of odd noises when they sleep, and that might merit some interest.

Although chess doesn't seem to be a glamorous topic that would translate well to the big screen, in 1993, they actually made a pretty good movie that approaches the topic: Searching for Bobby Fischer. One should be cautious about how much one views the film as being "about chess", however, for it's really not; we don't learn much about the intricacies of the game and it's more of a vehicle to tell a story about kids and the expectations adults place upon them.

Despite the unusual exterior, SFBF doesn't differ terribly from other "working toward the big game" motif found in other sports-related movies. Few are those that don't conclude with some climactic match; I can think of Bull Durham, but otherwise, I can't conjure the name of any other sports film that doesn't lead to an important game, and SFBF definitely falls into that category. Hell, it even manages to set up an "unbeatable" villain ala Drago in Rocky IV in the form of little Jonathan Poe, a sneering boy who we're supposed to see as everything "wrong" about the approach some parents take to their kids.

Indeed, we never even meet Poe's parents, as they've apparently signed him over to a hot-shot chess teacher. That's essentially what SFBF is about: it concerns the question of how hard should parents push their gifted kids? Clearly we're supposed to see the approach taken by Poe's parents as inappropriate and harmful, which it is; however, I think this point of view was unnecessary and cheapens the film. The movie could have more adroitly covered the issue simply through the concerns of chess prodigy Josh (Max Pomeranc) and it didn't need the inclusion of this stock "bad guy".

SFBF makes a few other missteps as well. For one, character development seemed weak. At the heart of the story is the conflict that should be felt by Josh's father Fred (Joe Montegna); although this topic does receive a fair amount of coverage, I still felt it appeared somewhat forced and it wasn't explored as thoroughly as it should. We don't see a lot of nuance in how Fred's opinions and feelings grow and change; they just sort of happen.

This occurs largely because SFBF attempts to pack in a slew of characters, which means that virtually none of them receive adequate exposition. Josh's mother Bonnie (Joan Allen) really gets shoved to the side; her presence is felt but little seen. and the movie should have shown her as more than just someone who clucks disapprovingly at her husband from time to time.

One other subtheme of the movie concerns the balance between the heart and the mind, as viewed through the opposing methods taught by Josh's mentors, cool and intellectual Bruce (Ben Kingsley) and streetwise and brash Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne). Kingsley receives a lot screen time - too much, in fact, as his scenes become redundant. We know how he wants Josh to play, so we don't need to see his instructions over and over again. Fishburne, on the other hand, gets the short end of the stick, and we discover very little about his character or his motivations. A better balance in this regard would have been more satisfying.

Despite these criticisms, SFBF works fairly well as a movie. Partly this occurs due to the stellar cast; in addition to all the aforementioned actors, we find talents like William H. Macy, Laura Linney, David Paymer, Tony Shalhoub, and Dan Hedaya in minuscule roles. With such a strong cast, the depth comes across on screen and helps make the characters more rich than they probably should be.

It was also nice to see this kind of story told in a way that avoids the usual "underdog fighting against the odds" point of view - sort of. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that Josh only spends portions of the movie as the prepubescent king of chess. Again, I could have done without those standard trappings, as they cheapen the point of the movie, but these aspects seemed subdued enough that they weren't aggressively problematic.

Will those obnoxious Little League parents who try to gain glory through the exploits of their kids learn anything from a story like SFBF? Probably not, as those folks appear pretty oblivious to their crudeness. However, I did like the fact the film addresses that area and shows that a balance can be maintained between a commitment to excellence and "real life" as well. Searching for Bobby Fischer definitely has some flaws, but overall it offers an interesting and entertaining story that's told competently and compellingly.

The DVD:

Searching for Bobby Fischer appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although a little spotty at times, the movie generally looks quite good and provides a satisfying viewing experience.

Sharpness seems strong, with images that are consistently accurate and well-defined. A small number of moiré effects appear, mainly through a striped shirt worn by Josh, and I also noticed moderate artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws are fairly minor. I saw mild grain at times, and some speckles and a few black spots also appear, but all of these remain pretty inconsequential.

Colors look natural and accurate, which is appropriate for a modest little film such as this; the hues do nothing to attract attention and they seem realistic. Black levels were adequately dark, and shadow detail usually seemed appropriate, though it could look slightly heavy at times. The image for SFBF doesn't approach "reference" quality, but it appears very good.

Also positive is the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. I didn't expect much from this mix, as the topic doesn't exactly lend itself to an all-out aural assault. Indeed, much of the focus remains appropriately limited, but the overall experience seems rich. Most of the soundfield sticks to the forward channels, but it branches out nicely up there, as music, effects, and even occasional dialogue spread to the side speakers. The surrounds mainly offer mild reinforcement of the music and effects, but they can pop to life pretty well during scenes with thunder and other broad sounds.

Quality seems very strong. Dialogue appeared clear and natural, with no problems of intelligibility; actually, some of Pomeranc's lines could sound a little garbled, but I think that related to his delivery and not the recording itself. James Horner's score sounds bright and dynamic, with good dynamic range and clarity, and the effects appear accurate and realistic; they also kick in some decent low end at times. Although the track itself is nothing special, it nonetheless was much better than I expected.

Unlike the supplemental features, which are sure to disappoint. That's because we find no extras on this DVD - not even a trailer! Paramount have made some strides with recent special edition DVDs, but they'll lose some of that new-found goodwill if they continue to release bare-bones efforts like this.

Ultimately, Searching for Bobby Fischer provides a pretty compelling experience. The movie seems a little rushed at times, and doesn't develop characters terribly well, but it provides an interesting look at an unusual subject. The DVD features very good picture and sound but includes absolutely no supplements. Searching for Bobby Fischer merits at least a rental, I'd say.

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