Sunday, December 4, 2011

J. Edgar (B)

Because J. Edgar had already been in theaters for a few weeks before my viewing, I knew in advance to slightly lower my expectations toward the film. Originally touted as a surefire Oscar contender, this biopic on the still controversial original face of law enforcement John Edgar Hoover, despite its esteemed cast (most notably Leonardo DiCaprio as the man himself), talented director (Clint Eastwood), and ambitious goals, opened up to middling if not downright mediocre reviews. Critics such as Joe Morgenstern from The Wall Street Journal called the film: "...a partially animated wax work."However, for every four of these blasting attacks, there was one pure glowing review giving the highest imaginable praise. It was almost as if these different critics saw two completely separate films: One a bloated woodenly acted mess and the other a brilliant kaleidoscope portrait of a man few knew. My disappointment grew to curiosity, and now approximately one day after seeing J. Edgar I am officially ready to add my own opinion to the swirling film criticism cesspool. Perhaps it could simply be the slightly lowered expectations, but for the most part this was a compelling though fairly flawed film.

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black forms a narrative for the film that is unlike any other movie I've ever seen. Using three separate narratives from the same character's viewpoint to tell a series of loosely connected short stories regarding Hoover (one narrative is Hoover lying of his exploits to his biographer, another his Hoover's personal internal recollection of his life, and the last is his memories while still 19 years old), Eastwood uses the many rumors and myths of his life as a springboard to create a massive personal collage of the man rather than contain one general plot. This narrative and plot choice is both the film's blessing and curse; though the many tangents and excursions the film takes show the audience the many sides of Hoover which might otherwise not be seen, it also forces the film to come off as, despite running almost 2 1/2 hours, a bit of an undercooked mess. By attempting to show us "J. Edgar," Black includes far too many unnecessary tiny subplots, while forgetting to give the major subplots their time to develop.

As it seems I am beginning this review by stating the flaws of the film, the amount of heavy handed symbolism and lack of even remote subtlety in this film was alarming. When a character is questioned for his morality for wiretapping a man's hotel room for unsupported reasons, is there any doubt that the sole purpose for this scene's inclusion was to make comment on the wiretappings happening today? Even when not commenting on present day events the symbolism and metaphor found in the film is still exceedingly blatant. In one scene, Hoover's mother calls gays "daffodils," and in the very next scene Hoover briefly places a bouquet of daffodils over his head. Let me ask a question to the reader: Does constant metaphor and symbolism along those lines sound subtle and nuanced to you? However, it must be stated that this is a minor issue with the film, and I understand that this entire paragraph is essentially one slightly large nitpick.

When Oscar season rolls around some time in the next few weeks, there's an unfortunate doubt that this film won't gain too many nominations. The only two that I could easily say it has a shot at are Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio, and Best Make-Up. While some might complain that a nomination for either of these two categories may be the Oscars pulling a Golden Globes to reel in some stars at the expense of more worthy performances, but in my case I would not mind a bit. DiCaprio gives his best performance in ages as the deeply suppressed, cruel yet sympathetic FBI leader, and does the impossible by having the audience sympathize with a man who called Martin Luther King Jr. a radical communist. Yes, there is one over the top crying "give me my Oscar!" scene involving a man and a skirt, but other than that one blatant manipulative moment this truly is an almost flawless performance. I'll admit to knowing very little about the art of aging make-up, but whomever the company who organized and applied the make-up was did a dynamite job. When I first saw Armie Hammer (whose "meh" performance will not be discussed in this review) in full on older man make-up, I at first thought it was a completely different actor. If that is not the sign of a quality job I frankly am not sure what is.

J. Edgar is indisputably a fairly flawed film, but thanks to DiCaprio's sympathetic yet compelling performance as the the man himself, a series of interesting narrative choices, and some pretty darn convincing looking make-up, J. Edgar truly is much better than the middling reviews are making it appear to be.

Grade: B

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