by Brett Gallman
About a quarter of the way through his latest film, I almost felt compelled to raise my hand and ask Mr. Eastwood if all of this material was going to be on a test. An almost merciless recitation of facts, names, events, places with a dash of gossipy footnotes and melodramatic aggrandizing, "J. Edgar" is delivered with the flair of a long-time history professor who's giving this lesson for the umpteenth time to bored, disinterested coeds who are only there out of obligation.That leaves the rest of us who are genuinely excited to be there left out in the cold; once upon a time, before I made the poor decision to become an English major, I nearly chose to study history. As such, this biopic naturally captured my fascination to an extent, as Hoover is one of the 20th century's most enigmatic figures. That said, his recount of his rise to a young scribe sometimes feels like listening to an audio book; occasionally, the film steps outside of this frame and allows us to peer into the FBI director's private life, particularly his relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
"Like sitting through Hoover 101."
This constantly zigzagging and crisscrossing narrative never quite commits to either thread, as we're left unsure if this is supposed to be a gratification of Hoover's innovative forensic advances (which are relayed through the famous Charles Lindbergh kidnapping) or an exploration of the man's private life. The latter would perhaps justify the film's existence; after all, textbooks could relay more information than we'd ever really need about the former. Instead, however, we're left with an aloof, directionless film that keeps us at arm's reach--it invites us in, but only so far, and everything from its pallid, monochromatic color scheme to its blurry, impersonal deluge of information renders "J. Edgar" cold and unfeeling.
However, it can't be said that the film even teeters on the brink of disaster. Eastwood is too efficient and professional, though the final product seems to be a rote display of technical proficiency and production design of a director who is maybe just a little bit too comfortable. About the biggest risk taken here is by Leonardo DiCaprio, who got portly and shaggy for the elderly version of the character. The entire performance here is certainly the best aspect at Eastwood's disposal, and it's kind of a shame that it couldn't have been found in a better film.
Whether or not DiCaprio gets a statue to validate it is immaterial, as his turn here solidifies his place as one of the best of his generation. At times, he feels like the only genuine human being in the film, which is no small feat considering Hoover is rather monstrous. DiCaprio captures both the confident, public posturing and the quiet, private longing for acceptance. If there's a center to be found in the film, it's in that desperate need for approval from the public, his mother (Judi Dench), and even himself. Had it not been so half-hearted, "J. Edgar" perhaps could have been an illuminating look at the man beneath the enigma.
Unfortunately, Eastwood opts for kitschy melodrama to highlight the film's emotional moments, and it doesn't help that DiCaprio is surrounded by a bunch of loud, silly characters, most notably those played by Dench and Hammer. Hoover's relationship with his mother feels better suited for a "Psycho" prequel, as her overbearing presence is ridiculous and almost feels like a scapegoat for Hoover's latent homosexuality. Speaking in trite, dramatic platitudes more so than genuine dialogue, Dench is reduced to a mere plot device that serves as a catch-all for all of her son's issues. As it turns out, maybe Hoover was just a big ol' mama's boy; in fact, even his infamous penchant for cross-dressing is seemingly written off as a one-time breakdown that comes after her death, though this is a rare, genuine moment of emotion that completely works because Eastwood allows DiCaprio to carry it.
Hoover's longtime relationship with Tolson should provide the film's through line, but it's treated as a bit of juvenile gossip, complete with a catty, possessive performance from Hammer, who shifts from insecure, jealous lover to a pitiful aside depending on our place in the script. If anything, the narrative path does match the nature of the relationship, as it begins as muted, sideways glances before exploding into a big, emotional fireworks display that's better suited for daytime soaps. Hoover's implied self-loathing of his closeted romance is maybe the most compelling aspect of the script, but it's woefully undeveloped and is only carried through by DiCaprio's performance, which is also the only thing providing any real continuity between young and old Hoover. The elliptical nature of the storytelling takes him from a curt, ambitious government agent to a bloated, raving paranoiac within the blink of an eye, but DiCaprio makes it work.
Calling it a transformative performance would be easy since he gets help from the makeup department, but one only needs to see how those around him fare as a comparison. Both Hammer and Naomi Watts (who plays Hoover's long-time secretary) look a bit silly under the weight of prosthetics, but DiCaprio slides into his role with ease. Maybe it's because he's the only one that doesn't seem to be trying too hard despite playing a historical figure that was often larger than life. With a more fully committed vision, to match the actor's brilliance, this could have been a captivating, complex portrait of the private life of a man whose currency was secrets.Instead, though, "J. Edgar" is content to mix documentary-style detachment with misplaced sentimentality; ultimately, it even makes a last-ditch effort to romanticize an unscrupulous figure by insisting that he could "stick it to the man" even in death. The irony, of course, being that he was "the man" his entire life--a cantankerous, distant, and frigid man who now has a film that often feels the same way.
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originally posted: 11/12/11 14:59:46