Coincidentally, Judge Clark Douglas also looks a lot like Hitler.
Our review of Chaplin: 15th Anniversary Edition, published October 14th, 2008, is also available.
He made the whole world laugh and cry. He will again.
"If you want to understand me, watch my movies."
Facts of the Case
Sitting down with writer George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs) to work out the details of his autobiography, the great actor/director/writer/composer Charlie Chaplin (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man) recalls the most significant chapters in his life: his impoverished childhood, his challenging relationship with his mother Hannah (Geraldine Chaplin, Doctor Zhivago), his early days as an actor, his friendship with Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda), his numerous marriages, his battles with J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn, Transformers), his struggle to make the transition from silent films to talkies and much more.
Charlie Chaplin was one of the world's great entertainers; most assuredly a subject worthy of a great film. Though all of the pieces seem to be in place in Chaplin—an all-star cast, a very respected director, a host of supremely talented crew members and a screenplay by Oscar-nominated writers—the end result proves a disappointment. The film is lavish, polished, and reasonably well-acted, but lacks the vigor to capture Chaplin's brilliance and the innovation to overcome the usual biopic hurdles.
The "chatting with Anthony Hopkins" framing device is a particularly clumsy way to tell the story, as these scenes prove little more than an opportunity for awkward exposition: one gets the sense these two men are simply telling each other things they both already know. Still, these scenes can be excused, I suppose. What can't be excused are the instances where this happens during the flashbacks. Consider a moment in which Paulette Godard (Diane Lane, Secretariat) chats with Chaplin: "I'm testing for Scarlett (O' Hara, the lead character in Gone with the Wind. Everyone is testing for Scarlett, and they say Katherine Hepburn has the part wrapped up. Still, I'm testing for Scarlett." This feels less like a real piece of natural dialogue than an awkward attempt at getting the audience up to speed.
The film also flounders in its attempts to provide an obvious motivation for most of the major events in Chaplin's life; giving us blatantly presented Key Moments that inspire him. For instance, Chaplin attends a dinner and sees a member of the Nazi party attempting to persuade others in the room of the party's virtues. Then Douglas Fairbanks makes a remark about how much Chaplin looks like Hitler. Within moments, The Great Dictator is born. Or how about the way Chaplin's difficulties with the FBI are explained away by a scene in which Chaplin insults J. Edgar Hoover at a dinner party? I really cringed during the scene when someone asks Charlie about the death of a former lover: "What's next, Charlie?" Chaplin pauses dramatically: "I suppose we just…smile." Sure enough, Chaplin's "Smile" suddenly appears on the soundtrack.
Perhaps most frustratingly, the film works very hard to recapture the mechanics of Chaplin's physical comedy, but it never captures the spirit of his work. We witness Downey working very hard indeed to pull of Chaplin's signature slapstick (and doing a rather good job of it), but Attenborough's flat direction does the actor no favors. The scenes are staged in a manner that's entirely too reverential; the reaction shots of everyone laughing seem curiously staged rather than a natural reaction. These moments are technically impressive, but somehow lack comic energy. This is particularly evident when contrasted to the montage of clips featuring the real-life Chaplin that appear near the end, which are considerably more laugh-inducing (and moving, for that matter) than any moments this film contains.
I wish I could tell you that the film at least looked terrific in hi-def, but this 1080p/1.85:1 transfer really disappoints. The image is dirty and grimy throughout, suffering from considerable softness and generally flat colors. The movie easily looks a good decade or two older than it actually is; far uglier than you would expect an expensive Hollywood effort from the early '90s to look. Darker scenes are particularly rough, with a good deal of black crush and depth problems. The audio is fortunately pretty solid save for some built-in dubbing issues, with John Barry's admittedly gorgeous score coming through with considerable strength. The music is probably the most powerful element audio-wise, dialogue tends to be a bit understated and sound design is less complex than you might think. Extras are recycled from the previous DVD release: "Strolling into the Sunset" (7 minutes), "Chaplin the Hero" (6 minutes), "The Most Famous Man in the World" (5 minutes) and the Chaplin home video "All at Sea" (3 minutes). Plus, you get a theatrical trailer.
A couple notes: First, this release is dubbed a "15th Anniversary Edition." Say what? It's 2011. The film came out in 1992. Do the math. Second, the film gets away with as much nudity as I've ever seen in a PG-13 film. Those sensitive to this sort of thing should consider themselves warned.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Downey earned an Oscar nomination for his work, and I suppose he deserves it based on the sheer amount of effort he puts into the role. Whatever faults the film may have, his portrait of Chaplin isn't to blame. Of the many famous supporting players, Kevin Kline makes a particularly strong impression as the dashing Douglas Fairbanks. In fact, Kline's Fairbanks is so appealing that at times I began to wish it was his biopic. Geraldine Chaplin is also immensely effective essaying her own grandmother; surely a role that meant a great deal to her. Most of the famous supporting players (including Dan Aykroyd, Milla Jovovich, Marisa Tomei, James Woods, David Duchovny and many others) don't have enough screen time to make a big impression, but they acquit themselves well enough.
Chaplin isn't an awful film, just one that consistently fails to live up to its potential. Fans of the movie will be disappointed that this Blu-ray doesn't exactly merit an upgrade.
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