Tuesday, December 27, 2011

J. Edgar

Grade: 39 (C)

Clint Eastwood as the director. Leonardo DiCaprio as the star. Naomi Watts,  Armie Hammer, and Judi Dench as the support. Dustin Lance Black as the writer. J. Edgar Hoover as the subject. How, exactly, does one screw that up? Eastwood is a snappy storyteller, DiCaprio and company gifted actors, and Black the writer of one of the most satisfying biopics in recent memory (Milk). Together, they should have created a memorable film about the noted FBI-director. A lot of effort went into J. Edgar, but very little came out.

Hoover (DiCaprio), makes himself known as a young man whose investigations into communist activities are as thorough as can be. He is given the chance to run the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where he revolutionizes modern law enforcement with his meticulous attention to detail and particular methods of dealing with law matters. He’s aided by his loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Watts) and right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). But Hoover has his vices: he’s willing to break the law, and persecute certain citizens (Martin Luther King, Jr. among them) to protect his country, he holds those close to him at a distance, and his homosexual urges, reciprocated by Tolson, are disapproved of by his controlling mother (Dench).

J. Edgar utilizes narration in the form of dictation the same way Black’s screenplay for Milk did, but here it’s a lot messier, and without real purpose. There’s not much rhyme or reason to how Eastwood and Black have constructed the film, leading to a typically lumpy biopic that feels the need to cover every major event in the subject’s life. The film gets even lumpier as it goes on, and by the last thirty minutes or so every scene feels like a climax. The pair should have focused on a specific period in Hoover’s life, a la Milk or Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, an infinitely superior biopic starring DiCaprio.

As it is, DiCaprio can only do so much with what he’s given. He makes a strong impression as Hoover, but the film’s misshapen structure doesn’t give him any way to truly build a character outside of initial appearances; with The Aviator, he had a clear character with a clear arc and was confined to a certain period in Howard Hughes’ life. As a young Hoover, DiCaprio is fine. As he’s slathered in terrible old-age make-up that makes him look like a wax figure, he’s unable to hide the youthful tremor in his voice. Hammer doesn’t fare much better, and outside of one emotional scene there’s not much to his character; his old-age make-up is somehow less convincing than DiCaprio’s. Watts and Dench, meanwhile, are given scraps. It’s never clear who any of these people really are, as the film is too generalized to even define Hoover himself. It all adds up to one of the biggest disappointments of Eastwood’s filmmaking career.

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