Monday, December 19, 2011

J. Edgar

As glossy awards bait, J. Edgar seems merely impeccable what with the actorly demands of a role like it's infamous titular character.  He's a historical icon, one with a sketchy, hard-to-pin-down set of modus operandi, one with a distinctive, authoritative voice who, for better or worse (and the film offers no set conclusions on either side) was one of the most influential Americans ever.  Coyly directed by Clint Eastwood, with his typical no-frills approach and dark lighting and exhaustively scripted by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), as a feature this significant creature of history is given a dreary and dry biopic.  While Leonardo DiCaprio hems and haws his way, and fairly gracefully more often than not, through the meaty difficulties of J. Edgar Hoover, he alone can hardly save the film from the doldrums it inevitably succumbs to.  In the end of this very long, not so accomplished film, one may walk away knowing even less about the enigmatic man, the father of the FBI, than before, and the shy stance it takes on tackling one of the most cutthroat men of American politics.  Perhaps this may have been the one case where Eastwood's famous directing needed more focus, more takes, more impulse, more something...

The dithering biography begins with Hoover writing his memoirs, giving dictation and telling his stories to a cute young ghost writers (all male) all the while espousing the hype and grandeur of not only his celebrity, but of his brain child within the Bureau of Investigation, which would become the FBI.  While notions and credits are giving his way, like the very nature of criminal investigation that Hoover spear-headed, and while accomplished as it is, there's an unlikable aura and sting of social awkwardness and confusion that overcomes Hoover.  This is naturally and wonderfully projected by DiCaprio's performance, but stymied by the bullish and at-arms-length approach given by director and screenwriter.  DiCaprio is game for the ugliness, pettiness, and megalomania associated with the icon, a man who kept everyone's secrets, and was hated by many, while keeping a stern fragility all to himself.  The actor game fully goes for the awkward rumored homosexuality that battled the core of J. Edgar (Armie Hammer plays his male companion, his right arm name at the FBI, a sly and gentile man named Clyde Tolson.)  The actor, however foolishly handled, runs with the silly mother-issued subplot (Judi Dench plays his proud mum), and the even-flimsier awkward romancer at the (Naomi Watts plays Helen Gandy, his future secretary and comrade; the two first meet on an awkward date.)  The actor handles the roles with an aplomb that elevates the dreary picture, but also alienates from it as well...he's never judgmental of his J. Edgar, and seems to relish the challenge, all the while Eastwood and Black snooze on the pedigree, hoping that that is enough.

There's no passion, no fire, just an endless blithering of facts.  Some should be quite compelling...J. Edgar proved a diverting pleasure in small doses in Michael Mann's recent John Dillinger film Public Enemies, however Eastwood seems to have little finesse or control over the film, nor the audience's waning attention spans.  The distance, and non-committal approach, the lack of judgement, or simply letting the man off the hook grows tired and is frankly offensive.  If not a complete white-washing of history, there's at least a grudge to be held that Eastwood's J. Edgar is only doomed with loneliness, never once a fight of consciousness, no matter how much DiCaprio tries to texture him.  D+  

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