Monday, November 14, 2011

Watching the Watchman

Funny things, critics. In the theater world they're widely loathed for their ability to kill a show with bad publicity, while in the cinema they are by turns ignored by the populace at large and used by the discerning to figure out what (not) to throw down $12 for. A 90+% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes is usually a good indicator of quality, and I have no doubt that the 3% afforded Adam Sandler's latest filmic atrocity is well-deserved. But J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's most recent offering and the subject under present consideration, has been absolutely mauled, with a 41% appraisal that's at least better than the most recent Transformers, but is worse than the Hugh Jackman Rock'em Sock'em Robots movie. I'm calling it a distortion of the all-or-nothing "Fresh" or "Rotten" grading system, for while J. Edgar has enormous problems, it is still worth checking out.

So: the movie, with a script by gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, tells the storied tenure of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), from his early days working in Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation in 1919 all the way through his death during the Nixon administration. In that time we see him bust up anarchists and gangsters, attempt to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby, and listen in on the "intimate" moments of American giants Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Kennedy, and develop a closeted gay relationship with his Associate Director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). It does so by using a framing device, Hoover's dictation of a memoir manuscript, that lets the narrative jump back and forth in time.

Occasionally this is effective; by allowing Hoover's mother (Judi Dench) to remain in the picture far longer than she would have in a straightforward chronology, the shadow she casts over Hoover's life is more effectively conveyed. Likewise with Hoover's stunted homosexuality. More often than not, though, the device works to the movie's detriment (this is true also of the nested flashbacks used in Eastwoods Flags of Our Fathers). At 137 minutes it is long and feels long, largely because early on there is little narrative shape and drive. The jumping around feels arbitrary, with earlier threads (the Lindbergh baby in particular) started, dropped, and then picked up after another interlude has taken our attention. Some scenes as a result are dropped in for no other reason that they must go somewhere to set up some later payoff. A confrontation with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy over his brother's dalliances comes and goes and then isn't mentioned until JFK's assassination.

The movie's approach to its subject is weirdly schizoid. Certain themes and ideas are handled with sledgehammer subtlety, while others are understated or overcooked with such oddness that it goes back to being good again. Much of the depiction of Hoover and Tolson's relationship is sort of sweet, what with Tolson picking out his ties, and the two of them being surrounded by lad-and-lady couples at the horseraces, but the scene in which they bring their feelings out into the open has painfully on-the-nose dialogue ("You're a scared, heartless, horrible little man!") and plays like certain scenes from Brokeback Mountain without ever feeling as emotionally raw.

The other driving motif of the story, the frightening knowledge-as-power Hoover comes to accumulate in the name of the law, fares much more consistently better. A speech about morals eroding and evil flourishing is spoken over Richard Nixon's inauguration with the heaviest of hands; but this is spoken by Hoover, whose soul we've been watching disintegrate for two hours. It's wickedly ironic and plays well with Nixon's bullshit eulogy that follows soon after. This weird double-sense occurs in other fleeting moments: Hoover learning of the JFK assassination while listening to a hidden recording of Martin Luther King, Jr. having sex; Hoover channeling his paranoia and hatred into his "portrayal" of an angry black nationalist as he dictates a forged letter he will use to blackmail King into turning down the Nobel Peace Prize. The film's heavy focus on the Lindbergh baby case, and the media hype ("Trail of the century!" "Bigger than the Resurrection!") and hysterical demonstrations it inspires, slyly acts as an indictment of overheated law enforcement reactions to horrific but freak crimes like the Casey Anthony fiasco. I wouldn't expect these kinds of left-field approaches from an earnest filmmaker like Eastwood, and it's a shame they don't appear in the film more often.

The script's roteness and messy structure are fortunately surmountable by an able cast. DiCaprio sports an accent and cadence that grates early on, but eventually starts to feel natural. He spends much of his time channeling his legendary sternness, but is deft in his portrayal of Hoover's confused attraction to Tolson. Hammer's got a natural charm to him that is perfectly suited for the character, but is more often than not written as the movie's conscience, saddling him with a great deal of Very Important Dialogue that he isn't quite able to overcome. Judi Dench's turn as Hoover's (s)mother isn't bad--it's Judi Dench!--but not especially remarkable. Until late in the story she doesn't come off as especially overbearing, making Hoover's dependence on her all the stranger (did he really live with her until she died?). Rounding off the core cast is Naomi Watts as Hoover's loyal secretary Helen Gandy. After a spirited introduction with a date in the Library of Congress the character never becomes more than that, but Watts manages to give some dimension to a role that's largely functional. The aging effects and makeup used to take the actors through five decades is largely effective, with a couple exceptions. DiCaprio in his twilight years looks fantastic, but his face strangely suggests less J. Edgar than Herbert Hoover. And Hammer's, while not looking bad, makes him look too old, almost ghoulish. Looking at the two of them, it's a wonder that Hoover died first. When he does, it is actually quite affecting, thanks to Armie Hammer beneath a lot of latex.

So there you have it: a film that never becomes more the sum of its parts, but with some occasionally very good parts indeed. In a way it has a lot in common with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both ambitiously tell a life story and utilize both cutting edge effects and clunky narrative devices and run into considerable problems doing so, and both faced a hostile response when released in the Oscar season (though Benjamin Button actually fared well with critics, which fueled its backlash). J. Edgar has an interesting story to tell, and manages to do enough interesting things amid its safe respectability to be a good investment of time and money, certainly more than one would have expected. Prestige pictures may perhaps be most vulnerable to a critical shellacking, given that they likely have a heavy overlap with people who actually read and take film criticism seriously, and it's a shame to see this film so disserviced.

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