Saturday, November 12, 2011

J. EDGAR Review

"J. Edgar" (2011)

"J. Edgar" should've been one of the best films of the year. There's no reason for it not to be, but here it is -- an epic missed opportunity that turns what could've been a riveting drama about one of America's most controversial figures into a long, ponderous mess of a movie. All the elements were there and ready for something great, too. It's directed by Clint Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby," "Changeling") from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black ("Milk") with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role as J. Edgar Hoover.

Clint Eastwood is a master of mood, and here is no exception. The issue, however, is how noncommittal he is on the subject. When ambitiously tackling such a man of history -- one who was powerful and hated but never understood -- you have to pull out the stops. Eastwood doesn't. He puts all the pieces in place but never engages them fully. We're left with something stolid and stagnant, not a juicy biopic as we might have expected. It's still respectable and sophisticated entertainment because Eastwood is incapable of making something not watchable. But the disappointment cannot be ignored, the feeling that whatever opinion you may draw about J. Edgar, neither side is with any conviction here.

And while Eastwood's direction and Dustin Lance Black's script falter, the acting stands tall. Leonardo DiCaprio disappears within the exterior of a conflicted and unruly man. Hoover ruled the Federal Bureau of Investigation like a mad bulldog from 1935 until his death in 1972. Nobody dared cross him even though he schemed and blackmailed without shame -- this includes a cruel, anonymous letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. After seemingly playing the same character in both "Shutter Island" and "Inception" last year, it's richly satisfying to watch DiCaprio successfully transform himself, an acting feat that could no doubt earn him a Best Actor nomination or even win.

Armie Hammer of "The Social Network" plays Hoover's FBI associate director and life-long companion, Clyde Tolson. It's remarkable to note that Hammer, a relative newcomer since his breakout last year, holds his ground next to DiCaprio and -- in some instances -- even outshines him. Both actors, however, are hampered by layers of distracting prosthetic aging makeup.

Tolson is Edgar's dark secret, and a majority of Black's screenplay is purposely speculative about their relationship. And while an important aspect of the man's life, Black takes the easy way out. Sure Hoover was terrible and did some terrible things -- but he was gay. And while he bases most of the film around Hoover's repressed homosexuality, he also uses it as reasoning for his hidden evils and paranoia about commies and radicals. His sexuality is not the only reason -- that's too simple, and even with DiCaprio's performance this tactic threatens to make Hoover one-dimensional, which he's certainly not. 

Scenes between Hoover and Tolson are nuanced and the film's best. In a most wrenching scene, Hoover's mother Annie (played with stern severity by Judi Dench) calculates what's going on between her son and Tolson. "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil," she says. The effectiveness of these moments, though, point to the film's greater downfall. Every gay man of that generation was repressed and struggling with something profound -- that's no mystery. So let's focus on what made Hoover different than the rest of those men.

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