Tuesday, 10 January 2012

“All the admiration in the world can’t fill the spot where love goes”

J. Edgar: directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Dustin Lance Black

I don’t care to enter into a dissertation on art which seems focused on informing and little else; neither do I care to enter into a discussion on films which do the same specifically or even more specifically biopics and their ultimate “purpose”. I will say that I find it tedious when biopics seem intent on presenting a cliff-notes version of important events in its protagonist’s life – and nothing more. Because, if the only reason I biopic is being made is because its protagonist is worthy of note – then it probably isn’t worth much effort or devotion. And, Clint Eastwood has always been a specific type of less-is-more director who immediately turns such a situation into even more of a quagmire.
I’m immediately moved to point out similarities (even if superficially) between J. Edgar and Eastwood’s last American based biopic. Both make use of especially dark and bleak hues in their photography, a simultaneously bare and oppressive score (in both cases penned by Eastwood), protracted investigation scenes, oh, and Jeffrey Donavan being monotonous and somewhat villainous (so bizarre, because he’s so charming in Burn Notice). In addition, both seem to go on longer than their respective narratives necessitate, although – and this is rather curious, J. Edgar is just over two hours and Changeling clocks in at well on its way to three. And, truth be told, both have this tendency to ramble through their narrative plot points with an occasional lack of specificity, as if unaware of the precise point of their cinematic existence. And, yet I liked Changeling a great deal more than I liked J. Edgar, if I liked it all to begin with. And despite the inherent messiness of both their canvases I’d imagine that a great deal of my appreciation for the former and the latter has to do with the fact that take away the “truth” of Changeling (and thereby it’s biopic roots) and make the same film and it would be still be interesting. And, if I step back and consider J. Edgar’s celebrity outside the realm of the film I suppose he did have a life interesting enough to warrant a film. But, if there is a good film to make from the life of this stoic, and distant man and the escapades he experienced in building the FBI this is not it.
From its opening J. Edgar decides to root itself as one of those exasperating biopics. It’s not that the somewhat generic technique of framing a history of character’s life (whether real or fiction) essentially makes for a poor film. Most recently, the very quaint technique of that same device was used to much better effect in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Then, there was at least an attempt made to shoehorn the framing device into an actual plot-point, but here it’s simply John feeling that it is the necessary time to delineate his life story. Hmm, okay, I’ll bite (would that I was wise enough to know better). The film jumps back and forth between Hoover in the sixties dictating his biography to a series of FBI agents as he hops through important moments in his life. We’re given no specific reason as to why the window through J. Edgar the film and the person must move from the sixties, but – you know – whatever. And, it’s possibly because of that the film seems to have no solid structure other – first third of his life as a youth, second part meeting Clyde and moving up in life, third part end of the Lindberg baby issue, everything goes to pot, etc. And, okay, fine I’m being more than a little flip about it because that is structure, but Lance’s screenplay seems to be suffering both from a dearth of story and from a plethora of information he doesn’t know what to do with.

On a scale of poor to bad, his ramblings into John’s relationship with the women in his life – his mother and his secretary – constitute the best part of the film. And, I can’t even fully credit him for that because there’s a distinct sense that the scenes work because the actors are trying so hard. Judi Dench is in all her campy glory as the mother from hell, but it’s Naomi Watts in an unenviable sliver of a role who manages to turn in the film’s second best performance. The first, of course, being DiCaprio. Now I have a long history with DiCaprio, and I’ve been wavering in my love for some time now. And, it’s hard NOT to think of his work here against his work in The Aviator which ranks among his greatest achievements. It’s not that good performances can’t come from films less so, but first off it’s tough for anyone to act well while performing under three pounds of cake batter and second it’s even more difficult to act when neither the screenplay nor the direction seems to be working for you. And, third, it’s even more difficult when the film seems unsure whether you’re a hero or a villain and decides to observe you with this uncertain diffidence that becomes akin to reticence.

Other than that, though, Leo is fine, and I’m not being facetious even as I don’t like the performance near as much as I’d want to, but I’d say that it’s superlatively better than the performances in that other other biopic Invictus…and really, the performances are generally good ranging from okay to fairly good. The usual Eastwood issues apply, like Armie Hammer who in my untrained estimation seems in need of a strong director who between single takes moves from inspired acting to troubling blandness. And, there is the very obvious sense that Eastwood wants to make a history lesson but for the fact that this thing doesn’t rise up as a particularly solid historical piece and one with what seems to be a striking lack of perspective. And, really, the transition from period to period isn’t awful in the same way that the movie itself isn’t awful. But, that’s hardly a resounding note to go out, but then that’s what J. Edgar is. It sits there being not awful, but not very good either.



Dan O. said...

It wasn't terrible like I was imagining, but it does feel a little like it is just showing Hoover's achievements, rather than the actual person himself, which they actually try to do but sometimes work and sometimes fail. Regardless though, DiCaprio is awesome. Nice review Andrew.

Nick Prigge said...

"Clint Eastwood has always been a specific type of less-is-more director who immediately turns such a situation into even more of a quagmire."

I really wish Clint would stay away from these sorts of films. His style just doesn't work for them. I confess I haven't and don't want to see this film, much like I haven't and don't want to see The Iron Lady because, well, obviously.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

The wishy-washiness of the interviews before the film's release was a giant red flag...but I ignored them, too. Like you, I didn't hate J. Edgar -- I'd see it again -- but I would never, ever call it a good movie. Watts was fine, Dench was wasted...for me, Hammer was absolutely Number One, because he at least was *trying* to make things interesting. And then they hid that expressive face under zombie makeup!

Great review, not so great film.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

dan but, he could have been so much more awesome if the film was realised with more thought in it. there's a brilliant performance in there waiting to break through.

nick he really should. and, i understand your sentiments. a biopic needs to have a hook, and in terms of recent standard biopics i wonder if anyone will top the aviator? i'm doubtful.

walter i wanted to like hammer, more, but doesn't his voice as this exasperating monotone? i don't know as i said - sometimes good, sometimes deplorable. but, i will say better than the film deserves for the most part.