As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m trying to brighten my attitude about life in general and the fall movie season in particular. After all, despite my bloviating, perhaps things aren’t so bad. It may not look like it judging by the current wide-release roster, but awards season is indeed upon us, and there’s actually quite a few promising titles to look forward to in the coming weeks — starting with “The Muppets” (admittedly not an awards contender, though I’m looking forward to it more than anything else this season), which opens Thursday. Nothing — I repeat, nothing — will brighten your holidays like the lovable antics of the Swedish Chef.
Of course, in order to claim my sweet, sweet reward I must first survive “Twilight: Breaking Dawn — Part 1,” which I will review next week. I just caught about 15 minutes of “New Moon” the other day, and easily consider it among the most harrowing cinematic experiences of my entire life. I honestly don’t know how I’ll survive a full two hours of such buffoonery, but if I do come out the other side without a significant degree of brain damage (I’ve already accepted that there’s bound to be some), I shall share my tale of woe.
For now, we’ll have a look at “J. Edgar,” Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial misfire. Among the nicest things I can say about it is that it’s not a bad film that is likely to inspire vehement hatred in viewers — on the contrary, I have a difficult time imagining that anyone could possibly feel anything but complete ambivalence towards such a dry, listless affair.
The critical community has a tendency to give passes to filmmakers whom they perceive as being beyond reproach due to their prior output. Directors as varied as David Lynch, Jean-Luc Godard and Sam Mendes have benefited from this propensity over the decades, but perhaps none more than Clint Eastwood. Granted, the man has done some interesting work behind the camera; “Unforgiven” is a bona-fide masterpiece, and I’ve a deep love for “Gran Torino.” But it seems clear to me that, while Eastwood is adept at simultaneously exploiting and subverting his legendary badass image (both films I mentioned were basically elaborate reflections on Eastwood’s career as a whole), he simply doesn’t know how to tell a traditional story in a satisfying way.
This is a crippling problem since, with no real sense of cinematic vision or the nuances of mise-en-scene, Eastwood relies almost completely on the dramatic weight of his stories. And, time and again, Eastwood presents us with dull stories with no dramatic drive at all (see “Million Dollar Baby,” “Invictus” and “Hereafter” for a few recent, particularly egregious examples). “J. Edgar,” Eastwood’s shockingly bland biopic of the still-controversial father of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is certainly not an exception. Indeed, perhaps only Eastwood could have taken a movie whose central character is a sociopathic, cross-dressing, mama’s boy fascist and crafted it into the most thoroughly uninteresting piece of Oscar bait we’re likely to see all season.
Told in a series of flashbacks as an elderly J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) dictates his memoirs, the film chronicles Hoover’s rise from a low-level field agent to his role as head of the FBI and arguably the most powerful man in the United States. It covers his early days of persecuting political “radicals” and doggedly pursuing Soviet guerrillas, as well as his dealings with figures like political rival Robert Kennedy and “public enemy” Martin Luther King, Jr. We see all the wiretap scandals and the congressional hearings and the inner-office politics, all patched together with mind-numbingly repetitive scenes of Hoover ranting to whomever will listen about the need to protect America and maintain its moral purity and blah blah blah.
Strangely enough, the film works best as a gay love story between Hoover and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his best friend and right-hand man at the FBI. Hammer, best known for his dual role as the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network,” holds his own opposite the far more experienced DiCaprio, and the two share a great deal of on-screen chemistry. However, this effect is somewhat muted by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s (an Oscar-winner for “Milk,” believe it or not) decision to cast their relationship as non-physical — an inexplicable third-act revelation. Such an idea is patently absurd, and for the life of me I can’t come up with a comprehensible reason to take that approach with this material.
Some have proclaimed this as DiCaprio’s finest performance to date. Though I would toss in my vote for his stunning interpretation of Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” (with “The Departed” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” as runner-ups), there’s no denying the ferocity of his performance here. As a man whose image is at constant odds with his own self-perception, DiCaprio provides a much-needed vitality to this otherwise inert production as his character delves ever-deeper into obsession and other personal demons. He may well get another deserved Oscar nod this season, even though the film itself falls so painfully short of expectations.