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.
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.