Sunday, November 13, 2011

SCHIZOPHRENE - "J. Edgar" Cannot Decide What It Wants To Be

"Schizophrenia", as defined by the Merrian-Webster dictionary:
(1) a psychotic disorder characterized by loss of contact with the environment, by noticeable deterioration in the level of functioning in everyday life, and by disintegration of personality expressed as disorder of feeling, thought (as delusions), perception (as hallucinations), and behavior; (2) contradictory or antagonistic qualities or attitudes.
"Paranoid Schizophrenia" as described from the same source:
(1) schizophrenia characterized especially by persecutory or grandiose delusions or hallucinations or by delusional jealousy.

These definitions, figuratively, literally and meta-textually,  describe "J. Edgar", written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Clint Eastwood. The story centers on the life of FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) in non-linear fashion, jumping between time periods showcasing the most important moments of his life as well as his relationships with his mother Annie Hoover (Dame Judi Dench), lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (an almost unrecognizable Naomi Watts) and second in command/lifelong companion Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer).

Now, it would be kinder, perhaps more "PC" to state that the the overriding theme of the piece is duality, inherently epitomized by the eponymous character. After all, here was a man who, according to reports,  believed in the Machiavellian ethos of "the ends justifying the means", often circumventing the laws he was sworn to protect in order to safeguard the country. He was a fastidious man who wanted the adulation of the people even when he was quick to suspect them of treachery. He tried to project heroic masculinity even as he hung back and had other agents do the grunt work, all the while waging an internal war within himself regarding his sexuality. As Hoover, DiCaprio walks a difficult tightrope between empathy and loathing in the viewer. Nevertheless, he portrays the FBI powerhouse with single minded, dogged devotion to his profession. DiCaprio's Hoover is genuine, despite his boundless vindictiveness.  A crusader in youth, a Gollumesque power monger in old age, DiCaprio's Hoover is a study of contrasts.

But then, so is this movie.  For a film about one of the most powerful voyeurs this country has ever had, this celluloid treatise seems oddly cursory. The film examines Hoover's life but offers no judgments nor conclusions.  It offers hints at the origins of aspects of Hoover's life that have become legend. However, it does not delve too deeply into it's more controversial aspects. For example, it does postulate a reason for Hoover's penchant for cross dressing, but leaves it there. While implication is a powerful storytelling tool, here it seems almost cloying; as if shying away from controversy.

The film implies that Hoover saw the world in black and white, and Eastwood films it as such. Even scenes set in broad daylight are presented with muted, even graying, colors; a panorama of monotone that makes up the film's general feeling. Some scenes are filmed with a documentary graininess while others with a muted clarity, as if to emphasize the docudramatic nature of the piece. Unfortunately, there is little drama to be had. The time jumping structure actually undermines moments that could have heightened actual drama, such as a physical altercation between Hoover and Tolson. As prior scenes have established the bond between the two characters is life long, the confrontation looses any dramatic heft it could have had. While their relationship is a matter of historical fact, much of the movie going public may not be aware of it. Thus, a key dramatic moment is lost; one among many in this movie. Eastwood's direction is serviceable.  The film as a narrative whole is, in a word, flat.

This is not to say that the film does not have power. The power lies in the performances. As Annie Hoover, Dench makes MI-6's "M" look like a kindly den mother. Her portrayal makes it understood how Hoover could be construed to be a "mama's boy". Hers is also a performance of duality: Her diminutive stature belies the cold steel she is. Her delivery as to why a childhood acquaintance of J. Edgar's was called "Daffy" is among the most chilling expressions of racist homophobia ever filmed due to its cold, matter-of-fact banality.

Naomi Harris' Helen Gandy is a cypher. Early on in the film as they engage in a first date, Gandy tells Hoover that she is loyal to her profession, and the film affirms that statement. However, there always seems to be something going on in Gandy's eyes, a hint that her devotion to Hoover is beyond the professional despite it being presented as totally platonic. 

Arnie Hammer is an actor to watch. Currently best known for his performances as the Winklevoss twins in "The Social Network" and soon to mask up in Disney's adaptation of "The Lone Ranger" alongside Johnny Depp's "Tonto", Hammer gives the film an emotional anchor. His Tolson is cocky, closeted charm with leading man good looks and a ready charismatic smile, yet he infuses it with the sense that he really does care for Hoover, in both the professional and personal sense. Despite the arguably horrendous aging make up (though arguably my reaction to the make up may be due to the dramatic difference between the character as represented in two stages of life), it is when he plays the older Tolson that Hammer truly shines.  He takes risks with the character, expressing a dignified vulnerability with minimal effort. So good is his performance that the audience feels his pain even as he attempts to mask it, to the point that one moviegoer at the screening I attended yelled an obscenity to Hoover on Tolson's behalf. DiCaprio and Hammer's chemistry, despite dangerously teetering into octogenarian caricature at times, is so spot on believable it draws one in.

This series of acting vignettes fine in an anthology film. However, these parts do not make "J. Edgar" a cohesively satisfying whole.  It's a weird instance where the multiplication leads to a quotient.  "J. Edgar" does not know what it wants to be. Like the film itself, I am torn. It is likable but not engaging. It somehow sterilizes a subject matter that should be rife with intrigue and titillation.  Its a film that seems to go far longer than it should but gives the audience very little to ruminate on. As engaging as it is at times, "J. Edgar" as a film is as clinical a dissertation as a cold case file and just as unsatisfying.

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