Now Showing at: most major theaters.
Review by: Larry Thomas
In baseball, not every revered player can hit one out of the park every time at bat. And the same goes for filmmakers. No matter what, the finest craftsman, or woman, is able to make a film that is at once Oscar-worthy, while being a hit at the box office. The time has come for Clint Eastwood to take a break and refocus. His latest, J. Edgar, is a dreary biopic about a dreary, spiteful man. By now, we all know that J. Edgar Hoover was responsible for making the F.B.I. the top investigative force in the country. He was also responsible for insisting on the development of forensics in crime investigation… fingerprints, scientific comparisons, and more. And we also know he was more than slightly paranoid, kept secret files on those who would cross him, and was widely rumored to be a closeted homosexual and cross-dresser.
Eastwood tries to touch on all aspects of Hoover’s life and career without over-sensationalizing any one area. He does fine in keeping an even balance. The performances are basically good. Leonardo DiCaprio handles the role well, especially considering the age span of his character. He even has a couple of scenes that are among the best he’s ever done. Armie Hammer, a relative newcomer, is Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s right-hand man and longtime companion… way before that phrase was ever used. Hammer is really good in the scenes of the early years, and he too has a couple of standout scenes that may nab him an Oscar nomination. Naomi Watts is her usual assured self as Hoover’s life-long personal secretary. Judi Dench is Hoover’s mother, to whom he is devoted. Probably too much so.
But the film has three major flaws. First, the pacing. The film cuts back and forth between eras, from young to old and back again. Sometimes the trigger for the change is an event, a location, or a person, and sometimes that works. Other times it’s confusing and makes the proceedings a little fuzzy. Secondly, the dialogue. A lot of it is cheesy, and sounds like it may have come verbatim from a 1930’s B picture. But worst of all is the makeup used in the scenes where DiCaprio, Hammer and Watts are older. Watts is ok. DiCaprio still looks like Leo DiCapro with “old” makeup on. But Hammer’s visage in these scenes is almost reminiscent of an outtake from The Incredible Melting Man, or perhaps a half-finished waxwork from Madame Tussaud’s. It is concurrently painful to watch and snicker inducing in its ineptitude.
At two hours and seventeen minutes, it’s more than too long…in some ways it’s too short to cover the time span and events involved. That says J. Edgar might have been better as a cable mini-series than a feature film. The final hour really drags, and the ending is most welcome when it comes. We’ve already spent too much time with this unlikable, albeit important, man of history.
There was another film about Hoover in 1977… The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, made by indie writer/director Larry Cohen, which starred Broderick Crawford and Dan Dailey as Hoover and Tolson, with a who’s who supporting cast of older Hollywood stars. I haven’t seen it in thirty years, but am now curious to revisit it on DVD for comparison’s sake.
The R-rated J. Edgar is now collecting your fingerprints at a cellblock near you.