Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review: "J. Edgar"

Clint Eastwood has a reputation as one of Hollywood's best actor-directors. His directorial debut was forty years ago (1971's Play Misty for Me) and J. Edgar marks his thirty-second feature film. It is a biographical drama about J. Edgar Hoover, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Hoover was the sixth director of the Bureau of Investigation and became the first director of the FBI in 1935, a position he held until his death in 1972. The film focuses heavily on Hoover's relationship with his deputy director, Clyde Tolson. It is widely believed that both Hoover and Tolson were closeted homosexuals and involved in a relationship. The relationship is presented very awkwardly - and I am sure the relationship itself was quite awkward - but the film itself is also presented very haphazardly. The lighting and makeup are a distraction, almost juvenile in its stylistic approach. The chief problem is the story itself. Parallel narratives have been very common in films I have seen lately (Café de Flore, Martha Marcy May Marlene and La piel que habito for example), but Dustin Lance Black's screenplay is a mess. The film is unable to navigate back and forth between decades with ease. Black won a 2008 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Milk, which also won Sean Penn an Oscar. Leonardo DiCaprio may win a nomination for his performance as J. Edgar Hoover, but I will be sick to my stomach if he wins. This is the third consecutive disappointing film from Eastwood. Hereafter (2010) was mishandled and Invictus (2009) was more miss than hit. The common problem among all his films (even the superb Million Dollar Baby (2004)) is that they are too long. J. Edgar, which clocks in at 137 minutes, is at least 20 minutes too long. For a film that focuses so heavily on the male relationships, the only highlights are the roles played by women. Judi Dench and Naomi Watts outshine their male costars. J. Edgar is another miss by Clint Eastwood and he is unable to properly wrangle a poor screenplay. Leonardo DiCaprio tries very hard, but his performance fell flat for me with poor lighting and terrible makeup.

The story begins in 1919 when J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) is put in charge of a new department within the Bureau of Investigation. At 24 years old, Hoover works hard to fight the anarchists and believes all communists should be deported. Little is done to manage crime scenes and evidence (such as fingerprints) is mishandled. Hoover believes that the Bureau of Investigation should be cataloging the fingerprints of all suspects. He is eventually named Deputy Director of the Bureau of Investigation and was instrumental in founding the Federal Bureau of Investigaiton in 1935. Throughout his career, he lived with his mother, Anna Marie (Dench), a controlling figure in his life who long imagined that her son would become an important political figure. He had very little luck with women. He courted Helen Gandy (Watts), a woman in the secretarial pool, but she told him that she was too devoted to her job to have a husband. Helen remained Hoover's assistant and ally up until his death. As Director of the FBI, Hoover wanted to recruit strong and dedicated men. He was introduced to Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) through a mutual acquaintance. Clyde became Hoover's second-in-command and was a loyal friend and confidant. The film manages the double narrative by having Hoover recount his life to Agent Smith (a miscast Ed Westwick), working as a biographer. The film costars Jeffrey Donovan as Robert Kennedy and Josh Lucas as Charles Lindbergh.

J. Edgar Hoover was an interesting man. He had a very complicated relationship with his mother. His relationship with Clyde Tolson is equally sordid. And then there is his professional relationships. He kept files on everyone. He had files on all the presidents and their wives in order to assure that he would remain in his post as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All his personal files were shredded by Helen Gandy before his death and no one knows exactly what kind of information he possessed. These are three very complicated stories that are deserving of their own story. Eastwood's J. Edgar mixes it together and the outcome is muddled and the final product seems unfinished. And it would be hard to believe that anything could be left out when the film is so poorly edited that the narratives are confusing and the film feels twice as long as it needed to be! I have not been the biggest fan of Clint Eastwood in recent years (I hardly gave his past two efforts decent reviews) and I am even less a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. The film would probably have been better handled by a different combination of actor and director. Thankfully Judi Dench was in the film. She seems to be in every film being released this fall. Dench was superb in My Week with Marilyn (review pending). J. Edgar is a misstep for Clint Eastwood and hardly Leonardo Dicaprio's best work. Any nominations the film reaps will be based solely on career achievements.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

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