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Review -- J. Edgar
November 4th, 2011 11:09AM

J. EDGAR reviewed by Michael Stailey
Opening: 11/09/2011
Studio: Warner Bros.
Accomplices: Trailer, Official Site

The most powerful man in the world. The most boring biopic in history.

As a lifelong political junkie, dramatized biopics -- from the ridiculous (JFK) to the sublime (Frost/Nixon) -- play right into my wheelhouse. Talented filmmakers feast on the bones of these high profile figures and deconstruct their careers for enlightenment and entertainment. So how do you go about tactfully criticizing Clint Eastwood? The man is a bona fide Hollywood legend who has crafted some incredible films. Sadly, J. Edgar isn't one of them.

A diligent young government agent, John Edgar Hoover, rises through the ranks of corruption and political turmoil to become the most powerful man in U.S. Government. Consumed by ambition and high ideals, his innovation and tenacity revolutionized crime fighting while opening the door to civil rights violations we continue to struggle with today. Hoover is the poster child for what can happen when unparalleled authority and a warped sense of right and wrong go unchecked. This is his story... or at least one version of it.

Dustin Lance Black's screenplay uses the dictation of Hoover's memoir in 1972 as the backbone for the film, allowing us to float in an out of key events in the man's career. At times poignant and other times annoying, Eastwood attempts to leverage its non-linear style to build a slow boil which culminates in Hoover's death. I say "attempts" because it's difficult to invest yourself in the life of man who is both unlikable and unsympathetic. In fact, the only real emotion we feel is pity, for people like his longtime secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) and lifelong partner Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, The Social Network) who are sucked into Edgar's raging whirlpool of ambition and are never able to escape. It's hard to imagine how this man engendered such loyalty when he treated everyone but his mother (Judi Dench, Quantum of Solace) with arrogant disdain.

The performances here seem to be the tipping point. DiCaprio has become a highly intense actor on the order of DeNiro, Pacino, and Sean Penn. But to craft a living breathing character, one has to go beyond the surface intensity and discover a light to balance the dark. And that's where this performance and the film itself falters. Eastwood has made a career of finding humor in even the darkest of circumstances and there's very little humor here, which makes everything seem so self-important. There are far too many moments that read as "Look at me, I'm acting!" which is the last thing you want an audience to think.

The subtle devious manipulations of Dame Judi Dench as Edgar's mother and the simple detached reactions of Naomi Watts as Ms. Gandy are in stark contrast to DiCaprio and Hammer who force their interactions in all but the most quiet of moments. One scene in particular -- which both men admit had very little rehearsal and very few takes -- finds Tolson and Hoover's relationship reach its boiling point. What should be a moment of profound realization is undermined by over-the-top bad acting choices. Armie was shooting for Liz Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virigina Woolf? and wound up with Susan Lucci in All My Children. The same can be said for DiCaprio in Edgar's inability to deal with his mother's passing. The scene nods to Hoover's rumored crossdressing, but screams of Norman Bates in Psycho.

For as much time as these men spend together on screen, you'd think our investment in their relationship would be significant. And yet once these characters reach their twilight years, you can't help but feel we're watching a college theatre production of Waiting for Godot with twenty-somethings in heavy elderly makeup "acting" like senior citizens.

Shot in only 39 days, J. Edgar is a period piece of the highest technical order, one which perhaps overwhelms its narrative. The hair, makeup, costuming, sets, and lighting are meticulous for the near 50 year span in which the story operates. And yet the post-production team seems to have taken it all a bit too far with a past history color correction scheme that leaches life from the frame, leaving us a whitewashed history that flies in the face of a tale that attempts to lay bare the history of a man who no one really knew beyond what he wanted them to. To make matters worse, Eastwood's mastery of music and passion for quiet understated Jazz sabotages the film. The sleepy piano driven underscore only amplifies the lifeless visuals to drag everything down.

Of the industry people I viewed the film with, I have no doubt there will be some who will fall all over themselves praising the film. I just can't share that enthusiasm. In fact, my disappointment with the experience seems to grow with time and distance. Save for Judi Dench, Naomi Watts, and an impressive production team, there's just not much to relish about J. Edgar. Those expecting a late season Oscar juggernaut will be sorely disappointed.

Guilty of criminal ambivalence.



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