Clint Eastwood is one of the most divisive filmmakers working in the 21st Century. His last several films have drastically split critics, with the older, more seasoned journalists mostly praising him and the young, online writers mostly calling him overrated. Eastwood is a particular favorite of the Academy, which might be responsible for some of his backlash; some feel his films may have been given more Awards recognition than they deserve.
Based on the trailers and marketing, Eastwood’s latest film J. Edgar looks like the type of film that can be expected to split critics like his previous efforts. It is a biopic about a historical figure whose public persona is well-known and private life is something of a mystery. It stars a combination of established and up-and-coming stars and has the look and feel of a movie that is aiming for Oscar attention. Will J. Edgar follow the path of Eastwood’s recent hits Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, or Letters from Iwo Jima?
The film premiered last week at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles and the reviews quickly followed. The reaction, as expected, is mixed with the film receiving lukewarm praise and Leonardo DiCaprio being the subject of most accolades.
Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter was one of the first out of the gate, calling the film a bit choppy, but successful:
As drama, J. Edgar gets off to a bit of a choppy start as it rapidly introduces a host of names and characters it’s hard to keep track of while bouncing from 1919 to the 1960s and back again, with Hoover’s voiceover attempting to clarify what’s going on. DiCaprio’s changing looks across the decades also takes some getting used to; while his old-age makeup seems jarring at first, one gradually looks beyond it, and the actor is actually most effective in the middle and late-age scenes.
Peter Debruge of Variety criticizes the film for being too gentle on its central figure:
Eastwood’s restraint applies to not only the kid-gloves depiction of how Hoover slyly manipulated politicos and press, including a loathsome attempt to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into declining the Nobel Peace Prize, but also to his oddly nonjudgmental approach to Hoover’s sexual identity, depicting him as a man too Puritanical to pursue intimacy with someone of either gender.
Mike Goodridge of Screen Daily seems to be of the mindset the that the first scenes of the film are sloppy, but things really get solid in the second act:
But in the second hour, Eastwood does what he does so well which is to focus on the characters. The scenes stretch longer and there are some exceptional moments – when Hoover’s mother (Dench) tells him that she would not accept a gay son (“a daffodil”), when Hoover tells Tolson that he plans to marry film star Dorothy Lamour, when Tolson tells Hoover that he should resign with his legacy intact, when Hoover breaks down after his mother’s death and when Tolson arrives at Hoover’s house when he has died.
Kris Tapley of In Contention says that the film is pretty much what one has come to expect from an Eastwood film, but there is one particular highlight:
At the heart of this vacillating, though, is a definitive opinion: Leonardo DiCaprio is exceptional in the title role, digging into an incredibly complex character, committing from frame one to the embodiment and maintaining that course without losing focus. It’s at times a broad portrayal of a broad persona, but I thought the actor found ways to dial it down and make the internal machinations of the man count. And I think it could very well carry him to that elusive first Oscar win.
Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere is a long-time Eastwood fan and he likes the style that Eastwood has constructed over the decade. He says this is one of the least of Eastwood’s recent efforts:
But for all the things it does right and despite that feeling of rock-bottom assurance that an Eastwood film always provides, J. Edgar is a moderately boring film, at times in an almost punishing way.
Mostly because it’s a profound drag to spend time with such a sad, clenched and closeted tight-ass. Hoover, the founder and ruler of the FBI for 37 years, was such a guarded and snarly little shit, and truly reprehensible in his attitude toward and relations with Martin Luther King, and a coward to boot. And when you mesh this guy with that languid highly relaxed Eastwood pacing and that desaturated color scheme (again!) the film begins to feel like it’s slowly draining the life out of you. It desaturates your soul.
Sasha Stone of Awards Daily says that the film is a satisfying love story with one of the best performances of the year:
J. Edgar is propelled by its story, unfolding choppily in vivid vignettes but with unified purpose by Black, and guided by Eastwood’s assured directing. But what sustains its thrust is DiCaprio in what has to be his deepest, best and most fully-realized performance to date. Yes, the old age makeup is jarring and bizarre at times but once you sink into it you completely forget you’re watching Leo in old age makeup. His shyness, his stuttering, his fear, his desire, his anger — all these play across Leo’s face like a seasonal storm. He’ll easily be nominated. He might very well win.
J. Edgar will be in theatres in the U.S. this Friday, November 11.
Leonardo DiCaprio is already at the number one spot on the Film Misery Oscar predictions, and I see no reason to move him after these reactions. However, the film as a whole won’t be so fortunate. Expect it to move down in the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay categories. I will have to see the film myself before I speak to the supporting performances, but I suspect that none of them will be in the running either. One place the film will certainly be boosted, however: Best Makeup.
Other Fall 2011 Review Round-Ups
- Venice: George Clooney’s The Ides of March
- Venice: Roman Polanski’s Carnage
- Venice: David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method
- Telluride: Alexander Payne’s The Descendants
- Telluride: Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs
- Venice and Telluride: Steve McQueen’s Shame
- Venice: Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- Venice and Telluride: Alps, Butter, and Dark Horse
- Toronto: Bennett Miller’s Moneyball
- Toronto: Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous
- Toronto: Jonathan Levine’s 50/50
- Toronto: Rampart, The Deep Blue Sea, Coriolanus, Take This Waltz
- New York: Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn
- New York: Martin Scorcese’s Incomplete Hugo
- London: Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin