Biopics Are The New Black – Hoover Edition

It happened: I saw J. Edgar this past weekend, a movie that I have been anticipating since the trailer hit the internetz a few months ago. Directed by two-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood, written by Dustin Lance Black (that sweet, soft-spoken boy who won the Oscar for Best Writing for his touching film “Milk”), and starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, Aviator, The Departed, my dreams), Armie Hammer (he played the heads of those hot twins in The Social Network), Dame Judi Dench (everything British), and Naomi Watts (21 Grams, Eastern Promises, We Don’t Live Here Anymore); this film is tailor-made to bring home some awards gold.

Based on the life of, you guessed it, J.Edgar Hoover, J. Edgar shows us quite a different side to the notorious FBI director. The film opens on Edgar (DiCaprio in a hilariously terrible fat suit and jowls) as a 20-something, working his way up in the U.S. government. A socially awkward, ex-stutterer, Edgar lives with his dotting mother, played claustrophobically by the Oscar go-to girl Dame Judy Dench. The film chronicles much of his professional career, highlighting his relationship with his lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his startlingly intimate life with right-hand man and backdoor lover Clyde Tolson (Hammer, also appearing in equally hilarious old-man prosthetics), and the perilous, paranoid events that shaped his reputation as a titan of self-promotion and fear.

This film seeks to show the humanity behind the iron man, the secret life of a man who exposed secrets for a living. Dustin Lance Black’s script is thoughtful and a bit too thorough; running at 2 hours and 17 minutes, I could have done without a couple of Edgar and Clyde’s corner-booth steak dinners. However, Black brings the same vulnerability and tenderness to Edgar’s tortured relationship with his never-could-be lover Clyde, as he did with Harvey Milk and Scott Smith’s romance in Milk. For me, this was the saving grace of the film.

However, this film did not sit right with me. Something about it was so formulaic, so calculated, that it lacked the necessary heart to bring compassion or even humanity to the feared and revered public figure. One big issue here is, I hate to say it, Leo. Remember when he was a baby-faced, twenty-something who just wanted to ride on the bow of the Titanic, and play basketball while dropping heroin? Thems were the good ol’ days. As much as he has grown into a mature, adventurous, highly-layered actor, I feel like every acting choice he makes positively drips with Oscar desperation. I can imagine him, laying next to whatever Brazilian Victoria’s Secret model he is currently dating, unable to sleep, wondering to himself, “why? Why, oh cruel world, have you denied me the Oscar three times? Remember when I played that Gilbert kid who was mentally handicapped? That was goooooood shit! Remember when I grew my hair that really unflattering length in Aviator, and still no gold? What gives? And c’mon, I mastered that South African accent and mined for diamonds in Blood Diamond, and I still came home without the chedda’. Life isn’t fair!”

I know what you’re thinking; my unfounded yet hilarious assumptions that Leo is tortured over his Oscar three-time fail isn’t enough reason to pan a movie, and yes, you have a point. However, the calculated, desperation of Leo’s personal narrative felt like it bled over into the rest of the picture. The overall direction of the film felt so archetypal and completely devoid of passion and originality. The film felt stark, clinical, and joyless. Yes, it is a logical stylistic choice to create an infernal, shadowy, blunt film when writing about the paranoid world of J. Edgar and his FBI. However, set against the backdrop of Black’s poignant script, it felt misplaced and misguided. Though I’ve never been much of a fan of Eastwood as a director, this film read as a shameless pander for Oscar votes. It felt as if Clint and his crew followed this checklist;

Oscar Checklist

1) Biopic about notorious political figure, royalty, or musician check

2) Dame Judi Dench check

3) Drastic alteration of physical appearance (bonus points if there is weight gain or loss involved, see Natalie Portman) check 

4) Dramatic monologue pondering human nature in the face of public scrutiny check

Yep, it was aaaalll there.

Maybe I’m just over the biopic thing; The King’s Speech, Walk the Line, Ray, La Vie en Rose, Last King of Scotland, The Queen, Milk; yeah, I’m o.d’-ing on them. What has happened in the last five years making it so that writers can’t come up with any original material of their own? Why is it all about the remake or the life story? When did creativity die? Some say that the only thing that remains of originality is irony. I hope this isn’t true, although recent events say otherwise.

As far as its Oscar future goes, unfortunately it looks quite bright. Despite my riotous critiques of Leo, his performance was actually deeply touching, and completely moving. Maybe I’ve been too hard on him and his models. After all, I’m sure my criticisms will keep him awake at night. That being said, Leo was able to work successfully against the awkward cinematogaphy and numb art direction of the film, in order to find some humanity for his doughy alter-ego. He should and will get a nomination. Whether he’ll win, well, we have to see whose performances come out of the woodwork in the next few months.

As far as I’m concerned, Clint should get the shaft from the Best Direction category. In my opinion, he is an overrated filmmaker who uses every cliche available to tell his stories; good and evil, right and wrong, dark and light. Eastwood operates in a world of shallow and overused binaries, a dichotomous realm that narrows any true depth or original thought. However, knowing how much the Academy loves the reward the same, archetypal films over and over again, they will most likely throw the old cowboy a bone and give him a nod. I just hope it won’t lead to a win.

The film will almost without a doubt get a Best Picture nomination. I am on the fence as to whether it is deserved. There are aspects of this film that offer incredible sincerity and startling intimacy. The performances of Mr. DiCaprio and Ms. Dench are worth the price of admission. However, as I have self-indulgently outlined above, this film is far from perfect and lacks the authenticity, depth, and direction to make it an Oscar caliber film. As far as I’m concerned, I’m waiting to see what else comes out before deciding if this should get one of the ten coveted spots.

What did you think about “J. Edgar”? Did you like Leo’s jowls, or was it all about Armie’s dough-face? Comment and be part of the conversation!

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