Nov 13, 2011

J. Edgar

This movie confirms what I have always maintained. That Clint Eastwood is a hack whose reputation as a good director I find inexplicable. J. Edgar Hoover is surely a great historical (and hysterical) character: a complicated prick, and the only man in the history of the United States to have remained in power for almost fifty years. However, this biopic, ponderously written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and clumsily directed by Eastwood, manages to make his story dull, disjointed, stiff and lifeless.
The film has many issues. It is directed by a man who does not have an ounce of inspiration in his body. He takes a script and stages it in the most unimaginative, workmanlike, literal way possible.
The script is needlessly baroque, with a back and forth structure in which an aged Hoover (Leonardo Di Caprio, looking like an exploding cauliflower) writes his memoirs and flashbacks to his beginnings as a young man. This drains the story of drama. A conventional chronological structure would have allowed us to see more clearly the arc of this strange, Shakespearean villain, from a stuttering sissy with a domineering mother to the most powerful, intimidating man in America. That would have been more daring. Instead we are needlessly dizzied by all the back and forth and horrified by a terrible make up job (don't be surprised if it is up for an Oscar. It still sucks).
The aged Di Caprio looks just like Jon Voight, so why didn't they get Jon Voight to play him in his old age instead? And Clyde Tolson, the love of Hoover's life and his second in command (a charming and excellent Armie Hammer), could have been played by Eastwood himself, instead of making Hammer look like a zombie out of a Christopher Lee movie.
How are we expected to believe anything this movie says about J. Edgar Hoover when the make up is so cheesily fake? When the director makes terrible choices in terms of casting characters that age many years in the span of two hours? Judi Dench could play a lamppost and get awards for it, and I always welcome her presence, because no one utters lines the way she does, but there is a preposterous scene when J. Edgar is a little boy, and instead of using a young actress (Samantha Morton, say) they give poor Dame Judi a terrible reverse aging makeup that makes her look ghoulish, and the movie amateurish. This is hack work. Had the script been linear, most of the make up problems could have been avoided because we'd have seen the exploding cauliflower/Jon Voight only at the end of the movie.
But let's say that you manage to look past the makeup debacle. The movie still fails to make a strong, clear point about a closeted gay man who was obsessed with secrecy, who spied on people and intimidated them by keeping secret files on them and let them know about it. The film fails to investigate how a man with an obsession for law and order, a man who created a modern, efficient and methodical FBI, was corrupted by power and abused his position to such an extent that he had eight sitting presidents trembling in fear of him, along many others. All that annoying back and forth fails to connect in a meaningful way how Hoover's queerness affected the creation of his law enforcement persona. Hoover could have been written as a character of Shakespearean magnitude, but the movie is cumbersome, corny and very superficial, and it wastes the opportunity to create an interesting portrait of an abuser of power. This J. Edgar could have been a man of invincible power yet vast reserves of weakness, cowardice and self doubt. Yet we don't really get to see the tension or the contrasts. And I don't blame this exclusively on the actor.
In a world where you would not need a movie star to bankroll a film, this role should be played by a great character actor, someone like Paul Giamatti, Steve Buscemi, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Peter Sarsgaard or even Joaquin Phoenix, who is a good looking version of Hoover (use your imagination). But in this world, the role goes to a boyish looking movie star who is not the character's type at all and becomes a distraction in it. Now, Leonardo Di Caprio is a consummate professional, and he clearly did his homework. He commits to this role as he does to all his work, with the utmost thoroughness. He nails the rapid speech (apparently the result of childhood stuttering), the stiffness of the era and of the man, and he even gets to act quite decently behind the clumps of makeup. They have him wear dark contact lenses that obscure his eyes, for crying out loud; if the poor guy gets an Oscar nomination it will be for acting in spite of all the obstacles against him -- bad makeup, bad casting, a clunky script and a hack director. Di Caprio delivers a very solid performance, but not a great one. Something feels mechanical and stunted. I think that the structure of the movie undermines the arc of the character, so while Di Caprio is sweating buckets trying to bring the guy to life, Eastwood and Black do everything in their power to make it hard for him.
J. Edgar Hoover was a nasty son of a bitch and this movie shows him that way. But this is the post Tony Soprano age, we are used to nasty sons of bitches that seduce or compel us to keep watching. I felt absolutely nothing for this character in the course of this interminable movie, no matter how much cheesy swelling music they added in the scenes that are meant to tug at the heartstrings. No hate, no love, no interest in this man. I blame it on the stiffness of the direction, on too many ridiculous scenes, like Hoover proposing to his secretary (Naomi Watts) at the Library of Congress five minutes after he's met her, or an over the top tantrum by Tolson as Hoover tells him he thinks it's time for a Mrs. Hoover. But mostly, one gets detached from the cardboard quality of the whole enterprise because of the lack of a livelier and deeper probing of Hoover's character. This movie is a bore.