Clint Eastwood’s latest Oscar grab bag, J. Edgar, is proof positive of how a bad screenplay can sink even the sturdiest of ships.
Aimlessly leap-frogging around a fifty year time span covering the entire career of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio, delivering a workmanlike performance), Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay utilizes the clichéd framework of the title character dictating his memoirs. In an attempt to cover so much 20th century history, the story touches on so many things that it ends up enlightening nothing. Half-hearted efforts to give us glimpses into Hoover’s psyche and background (Surprise! He had a domineering mother represented by a phoned-in performance from Judi Dench) shed little light on the rumors that have always been out there. Was he a closeted homosexual? Probably. Was he a cross-dresser? Probably not. The film tries to anchor itself around his relationships with Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer – almost comical in his depiction) and his long-suffering secretary Helen Gandy (played admirably by the long-suffering Naomi Watts who seems to always get these thankless supporting gigs in high-profile disappointments) – but neither are treated in any kind of sophisticated way and we’re left with surface-level treatments of these characters who obviously (in their own different ways) loved and were ruled by Hoover.
I’ve been a bit more reluctant than others to call for Eastwood to be put out to pasture. I found, though heavily flawed, his Changeling, Invictus and Hereafter to be more compelling than the general consensus and Gran Torino showed he’s still capable of being a flippant populist. But it’s clear that since Letters from Iwo Jima, he’s been on a precipitous decline, and there’s almost nothing of great interest in J. Edgar beyond DiCaprio’s solid performance. Eastwood does what he can here with the scatter-shot script that bounces all over the place with no clear focus, but his usual bag of tired tricks (poor lighting, his one-note score, slack editing) doesn’t help the proceedings. The production design and attention to detail are nice, and the aging make-up (with the exception of Arnie Hammer’s) isn’t nearly as bad as some proclaim and I found to be actually quite good in the case of DiCaprio and Watts.
There are nuggets of some greater story here – vague ideas around how a man can define an institution and vice versa or the dangers of a government spying on its own citizens – but they’re washed out in Black’s screenplay that at one point foolishly paints Hoover and Tolson as a bunch of gossipy homosexuals who are more concerned with spying as entertainment than as crime prevention – a gross stereotype coming from the man who wrote the Oscar-Winning script for Milk.
In the hands of a savvier or most risk-taking auteur, we could’ve at least had a more entertaining movie that took one side or another – painting Hoover either as a misunderstood (perhaps tragic) hero who changed the nation through his revolutionary ideas on fighting crime or as a paranoid egomaniac who projected his own self-loathing and denial on those he spied upon – but instead we are left with a luke-warm TV-movie style affair that trys to take the middle road and renders everything banal resulting in more questions than answers.
The biggest question I left with was around how eerily Hillary Clinton-like Naomi Watts looked in her aging make-up. Perhaps twenty years from now Watts can headline her own Oscar-bait biopic. Let’s just hope Dustin Lance Black doesn’t write the screenplay.
Glad to know what you think of this… several times I’d been ‘tempted’ to go see it, but for some reasons I just wasn’t motivated enough. Now, I’ll probably wait till it screens in a second run theatre. L. DiCaprio and Naomi Watts are solid actors. It’s unfortunate then that they got caught in a deficient screenplay and poorly executed directing. I sure hope DiCaprio will be in better hands with Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Great Gatsby”… but I don’t have high hopes though. We’ll see. But I’m beginning to suspect… is auteurism getting a bit out of hand, too much of an ego trip for some of them?
Arti – I think the whole “auteur” thing is an ego trip for many – especially some of the “younger” directors. I don’t feel it is as much for Eastwood as he doesn’t write his films – but he obviously choses his screenplays carefully to fit his style. –DHS
I actually enjoyed this movie, but I can see where you’re coming from on several points. However, I think the lighting was very intentional in most scenes. The shadowy facades on the characters were very effective at showing it as a place of secrets, and I found that to be one of the best things about the movie. I also enjoyed the clever bit at the end where Hoover and Tolson talk and completely undermine everything Hoover had been dictating. To me it was the movie’s acknowledgement that you can never really know someone in a biopic, and I don’t think J. Edgar was an attempt to “know” the man. It simply paints a picture of him as a complex man, though I agree that his relationship with Watts should’ve been emphasized more than the one with his mother.
I’ve heard others say the same with regards to the lighting – but if you look at Eastwood’s films – just about all of them are lit that way (very dim, heavy shadows, little color) – so I don’t know if he put as much thought into it as it would accidentally appear. The revelation of the “unreliable narrator” was old hat and very predictable – but the acting was good in those closing moments. –DHS
I find DiCaprio an interesting actor, one who is willing to take chances. I have been on the fence whether to see this one and I am still there.
Leo is the best part of the movie by far – his performance is the only thing that holds this mess together. –DHS
Ha! Love that title! I concur with this earned dismissal lock, stock and barrel. I do consider LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA a near-masterpiece, and one of Eastwood’s great films, but I really don’t have much good to say about any film that came after that, and thought INVICTUS and HEREAFTER predominant failures. J EDGAR is unfocused, episodic and all surface treatment. Eastwood didn’t probe deep enough into the Hoover’s sexual behavior, and the make-up was ghastly! Even the director’s own plaintive score has become redundant. Di Caprio survives the debacle, delivering one of his best performances, but this is really a by-the-numbers film that further urges Eastwood’s retirement.
As always a splendid takedown!
Sam – yes LFIJ was Eastwood’s last great film, though I have to admit I’ve still enjoyed (to varying conflicted degrees) his films up until J. Edgar, which is an agreed upon mess. I think it’s time he thought about retiring (along with Robert Redford, whose recent The Consipirator was an equally botched historical effort). Their films are utterly sappped of energy. –DHS
[…] At The Schleicher Spin David issues a blanket dismissal of the latest Clint Eastwood feature, tellingly titling his essay “J Edgar Snoozer”: https://theschleicherspin.com/2011/11/16/j-edgar-snoozer/ […]