A year ago when it was announced that Leonardo DiCaprio would team up with director Clint Eastwood to portray former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the buzz was earsplitting. DiCaprio is one of the best actors working today, Eastwood a multiple Oscar winner and Hoover one of the most interesting people of the 20th century. It was a match made in heaven. So why does the new movie J. Edgar feel like purgatory?
J. Edgar is defined by a few key elements, none of which are positive. It's a chronological mess, Eastwood having chosen to jump between several time periods to give audiences a comprehensive picture of the complex title character. It's most noticeable weakness is the inconsistent makeup, which ranges from very good to laughably bad. And it's defined by slow pacing, the movie a long, aimless journey with no obvious ending or story arc.
All of the film's problems rest on Eastwood's decision to defy chronology. The movie begins with an old-looking Leonardo DiCaprio reflecting on his life, then quickly jumps back to his roots as a 20-something who is promoted quickly through the ranks due to his evidence-based approach to crime fighting and intense drive to protect the country from the threat of communism. Eastwood continues to bounce around in time, looking at his pursuit of the Charles Lindbergh Jr. kidnapper, his blackmailing of various high-ranking officials and his potentially homosexual relationship with his deputy director, played by Armie Hammer.
Eastwood, working off a script by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), spends a surprisingly large time in the 60's and 70's, leaving his actors buried under thick layers of makeup and rubber skin. DiCaprio and co-star Naomi Watts get pretty good treatment, though it's still pretty disconcerting to have two young actors - both still in their thirties - forcibly aged during much of the movie.
Unfortunately, Armie Hammer doesn't escape so easily. Only 25 years old in real life, Hammer is trapped behind an emotionless rubber mask that looks like something from The Mummy. What did he do to deserve such punishment? We may never know.
But the makeup issues are superficial. It's the story, the editing and the direction that destroy the potential J. Edgar had at its disposal. In his attempt to cover so much of the FBI director's life, Eastwood manages to cover none of it, delivering nothing more than a shallow glance at the man. So many aspects of Hoover's life are movie-worthy, it's stunning that Eastwood misses the mark so significantly.
What J. Edgar should have been about is Hoover's rise to power, an examination of why he became the man he became and how he did it. Eastwood and Black should have focused on his early exploits - eliminating the necessity for aging makeup - and showcased in more detail the ways Hoover modernized crime fighting. Simultaneously, the movie would highlight Hoover's lust for power, his paranoia and the hypocritical elements of his life.
Instead, the filmmakers dwell too much on Hoover's alleged homosexual tendencies, a factoid that is neither interesting nor fleshed out enough to be a major plot point. The chemistry between DiCaprio and Hammer is significantly lacking. Then again, the film's overall chemistry lacks spark, too.
With the movie jumping all over the place, Eastwood never establishes a thematic arc. J. Edgar doesn't build to anything. It's so lacking a clear path that I thought - and hoped - the movie was going to end about 20 times before it actually does.
Not too surprisingly, J. Edgar made me think of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, which also starred Leonardo DiCaprio and spanned a similar period of time. The Aviator focused on an incredibly eccentric historical character, not unlike J. Edgar Hoover, and also jumped back and forth in time. And yet The Aviator is light years ahead of J. Edgar in every conceivable way; it's visually incredible, superbly acted, well written and established a powerful character arc that developed throughout the story. J. Edgar is visually bland and a chaotic mess.
The movie's one saving grace is DiCaprio, who turns in yet another fine performance. But DiCaprio has been better in just about everything else he's ever starred in, his performance at times caricature, restricted by the sloppy, bland screenplay. Hammer is forgettable and Watts is given very little to do.
As slow and plodding as J. Edgar is, the character is intriguing enough to make the movie serviceable. But it's another disappointing movie from Eastwood - following last year's painfully bad Hereafter - one that gets worse as time progresses. J. Edgar Hoover deserves a big screen portrayal, but J. Edgar doesn't do the character justice.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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