Sunday, November 13, 2011

Life in a Vacuum

Well, I wasn't expecting that. With hordes of folks out this weekend to see one of the two new blockbusters released - the mythological warfare epic Immortals and the Adam Sandler comedy Jack and Jill - I was sure that lost in the struggle would be the Clint Eastwood directed, Leonardo DiCaprio starring J. Edgar, the biopic on the life of the man who was the face of law and order in the United States for almost forty years. These days, most people know little about J. Edgar Hoover, other than that he, according to rumor, preferred the feeling of wearing women's clothing. Those historians that do know him often neglect to give credit for many of his modern innovations in the world of criminal justice still used today (forensics, fingerprinting) and instead focus exclusively on the controversies surrounding his methods of investigation. Maybe they should, maybe they shouldn't, but the vast majority of people still don't know much about this major figure in American History. Between that and the questionable abilities of Clint Eastwood as director, I was frankly expecting to see J. Edgar in a half-full theater. I was soon proven wrong as I found myself in the presence of a packed house, and was lucky to find a good seat with which to see this surprisingly sought-after release.

J. Edgar did not have sex with that woman... or anyone else, apparently
It is the closing days of the career of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio). For thirty-seven years, he has fought to protect his country from Communists, anarchists, saboteurs, and anyone he thinks is being disloyal to the United States. Drafting an agent to chronicle his memoirs of his career in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hoover is determined to set the story straight: that he is a hero to be celebrated, a devoted civil servant who protected all of us from the radicals who would undo all the greatness we have attained. Following the story through flashbacks, we witness the entirety of his career, between pursuing legitimate criminals to spying on government officials, and the relationships between he and his mother (Judi Dench) and his only real friend and confidante, Associate Director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).

It's like Rear Window meets Goodfellas
The production values are at a high standard, not surprising for a Clint Eastwood picture. Every detail from the post-WWI scenery of the film's opening scenes to the costumes and props of the times represented are meticulously detailed and perfectly placed to make each era of Hoover's career feel unique and properly aged. The gray film quality also lends an old-timey look to the visuals, making it appear a true period piece not unlike this year's Jane Eyre. Clint obviously pulls off the stops, making sure that there are no visual errors that would detract from the splendor of the picture. If nothing else, J Edgar does its best to at least look the part of an Academy Award shoe-in.

He's 6'5", 220, but there's only one of him this time
There is also some decent acting, though sadly the dialogue is often times presented in such a ludicrous manner that you can't help but laugh. DiCaprio deserves a lot of credit for his performance however, his Hoover standing above the rest of a very talented cast. He has the distinct difficulty of taking a singularly unlikable character and making him charismatic enough to carry a film. That he fails does nothing to discredit his effort, and people will certainly be discussing his work come award season. Armie Hammer runs a close second in the chops department; the man who made us take notice as twins in 2010's The Social Network goes solo this time out, and he portrays Tolson as an idealistic foil to the film's lead. Sure, there's no explanation as to why Tolson (in this telling) would be drawn to an unlikable goat like Hoover, but that's obviously where artistic license is brought into play. Surprisingly underused is Naomi Watts as longtime Hoover receptionist Helen Gandy. I actually thought Watts would play a large part when she got some early screen-time, but instead she is a constant presence, one that inspires neither interest nor contempt in the irrelevance of her appearance. Beyond that, there are an assorted collection of recognizable actors who make sporadic appearances. To a point, their limited appearances are consistent with the historical figures they represent, but soon you are distracted by the recognition of some noticeable actor over what is actually happening, causing overall disinterest in the actual story in progress.

"Land Shark, calling on line one"
And in the end, that is just one small thing wrong with J. Edgar, part of a sea of small, wrong things. Clint Eastwood as a director hasn't been a major factor since 2004'a Million Dollar Baby took it all. Hereafter was one of 2010's worst. Gran Torino and Invictus were popular but quickly forgotten. Changeling had a great Angelina Jolie performance but not much else. Don't even get me started on the overrated heaps that were Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Eastwood has a very obvious style of directing, sadly lacking in innovation and tending to stick to "tried and true" methods. That worked fine when the material he worked with was at the top of the game. Now that he's delving into less heralded territory, his flaws as a storyteller become more readily apparent, as far too often did the story he was trying to tell get away from him, and the cliched film-making methods he used only exacerbated the problems. To be fair, I can't think of any director who could have pulled this tale off; it's only because Eastwood is such a known commodity that his failures here are so remarkable.

Five makeup companies had to be hired to slather that on
So what else is wrong with the film? Well, the sexual tension between Hoover and Tolson gets more than a little ridiculous at times. Yes, I know there is speculation as to the nature of their friendship, but these two seriously have more passing glance moments than Sam and Frodo had during the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I had enough more than halfway through. Judi Dench is absolutely horrid (I never thought I would say that in my lifetime), completely wrong for her role as Hoover's demanding mother. I also hated Hoover depicted as an emotionally-stunted mama's boy with serious development issues. Sure, he might have actually been that, but when I watch a biopic of someone, I expect that he or she will present me with at least ONE good quality. Hoover's ability to do the wrong thing for potentially right reasons is an interesting idea, but one lost early on when getting into his growing levels of corruption. Yes, absolute power, blah blah; I'm bored now. The film's makeup is one of the lone visual aspects that looks absolutely fake on screen. Older actors should have been hired to portray the elder Hoover and Tolson, as neither lead actor looks believable in the aging process. If it wasn't for the fact that Cylde Tolson really did have a stroke, I'd have thought it was an excuse for the complete lifelessness in Hammer's face in the film's latter act. And DiCaprio manages to just look like a twenty-something wearing heavy prosthetics. And finally, the story's focus on the Lindbergh Baby tragedy turned the film into complete shambles, though it did provide one of the film's unintentionally funniest lines of dialogue.

He's... to sexy for his derby hat...
From the perspective of those who want Award season to begin, I guess I can understand why people flocked to see J. Edgar this weekend. It's unfortunate though that the object of their affection is in fact quite broken, none of the better concepts working out as they should. While the film boasts some good acting and is at least told competently, if not WELL, there are far too many moments where you have to remind yourself why you chose this film over anything else currently in theaters. Though not among the worst films this year, J. Edgar is by no means recommendable, and will likely be long forgotten when it comes time to nominate the year's best. Despite his apparent efforts at notoriety, it seems Hoover is destined to become forgotten as his many contributions to law enforcement will forever be overshadowed by bad decisions, character flaws and extremely casual dress codes. This film, and its director, do him no favors in getting any better.

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