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Home » Culture and Criticism

11/31: J. Edgar

Submitted by on December 11, 2011 – 4:22 PM15 Comments

photo courtesy Warner Bros.

I have no idea what the movie is trying to do. I only know that it fails on almost every level save the acting, and even that isn’t great; it’s merely not as disastrous as the script and the direction. This is a film that has J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) describing his daily workout routine to his soon-to-be alleged whatever, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, valiantly pretending he’s playing an actual character instead of an end table): “Pushups, sit-ups, and…squatting.” Forget a double entendre; half an entendre is status to which that line can still only aspire. Dustin Lance Black’s clumsy script also forces Hoover to say through tears to his longtime assistant/abettor, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), “Do I kill everything I love?” Well, no. You don’t. The whap upside the head with the J volume of the Junior Britannica passing as dialogue around here — that’s gonna take out a few women and children.

DiCaprio’s rendition of Hoover is almost impossible to assess, given the fog of atomized horseshit he’s forced to operate in throughout. He’s doing his best, but he seems exhausted onscreen, weighed down by the prosthetic jowls, and by nonsense like Jeffrey Donovan’s Clone High-ish accent in his one scene as RFK (“Yew can go now, Mistah Hoovah”); the umpteen scenes reviewing Hoover’s inappropriate closeness with his mommy (Judi Dench), and the scene immediately after her death in which he puts on her necklace and dress, then collapses to the floor, presumably felled by the cartoonish indolence of the writing; Hoover’s excitement over taking a date to a card catalog; Tolson’s stroke, which I described in my notes thusly: “SOMEONE GET A DOCTOR! HE’S GOT MAKEUP POISONING!”

A lot of things went wrong here, and Public Enemy #1 (if you’ll forgive the reference) is the script. Black apparently couldn’t commit to a full survey-style bio-pic, so instead, we get a few key sequences meant to symbolize the whole, and that too fails, particularly the focus on the Lindbergh-baby kidnapping. If you know the details of that case, which I do because I’m a true-crime nerd, the numerous inaccuracies will drive you nuts; perhaps the point is that Hoover purposely misrepresents his importance to that case because he’s a self-aggrandizing ass, but that intent isn’t clear. If you don’t know the details of that case, the repeated returns to it are merely boring and didactic, like the rest of the film.

The dialogue is even worse — all telling, no showing, and repetitive to boot. The portrait of Hoover that emerges is a slapped-together Wikipedia stub that retails antediluvian ideas about closeted homosexuality and its causes, then sketches the man’s racist paranoia as the quaint ramblings of an eccentric uncle. The actors, all pros, do the best they can, but the writing makes their jobs impossible; the only available dimension for any of them is “dour asshole.”

I recall one review admiring the shot of Hoover listening to the Dr. King sex tapes with his face half in shadow. Please. That isn’t a directorial decision. It’s the filmmaking equivalent of an automated out-of-office email. J. Edgar is a stale, badly written diorama whose amateurish character shorthand kills its actors’ shots at statues. No bet.




  • kara says:

    “The dialogue is even worse — all showing, no telling, and repetitive to boot”

    Isn’t showing good, telling bad? I suspect a minor typo/thinko there? Or am I mistaken?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    You are correct. I was so annoyed that I transposed the two. Fixed now.

  • kara says:

    I figured. The annoyance was palpable :)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Srsly. What I wouldn’t have given for some showing…

  • ct says:

    I always want to give Clint Eastwood another chance (Unforgiven and Outlaw Josey Wales are so good). Why does he keep testing my loyalty? WHY?

  • Liza says:

    THANK YOU. I was horrified to read a glowing review by the New York Times about this movie (seriously, MD? do you have to art-ify every bad movie ever made??) after walking out of the theater all, “….what?” In his effort to do ten billion things, the movie commits to absolutely nothing. What a disappointment.

  • Emma says:

    This was on my list of “maybe” movies due to some of the glowing reviews. After reading this though, I think I’ll just go back and re-read the Ethel Mertz bit from Tim Gunn’s book and call it a day.

  • Couch Baron says:

    “It’s the filmmaking equivalent of an automated out-of-office email.”

    I hope someday to write a line this hilariously cutting. Hee.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    If I’m not mistaken, today is your day. And on the same subject, too. [tents fingers]

  • […] layer – it is indicative of the level of subtlety you can expect from the film. Sarah already eviscerated it over on Tomato Nation so wittily that I was tempted just to link to her review with a “What she said,” but […]

  • Jeanne says:

    I lost any interest I had in this movie when I saw the horrible old man make-up on DiCaprio, that and eastwood for some reason cast Jeffrey Donovan as JFK. WTF was he thinking with that one? Donovan has an incredibly limited range and JFK? Not in it.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    He’s actually RFK, but except for that one letter, your comments remain correct.

  • Jeanne says:

    Ah ha, well that’s how little attention I paid to the previews I suppose. I just heard Generic Kennedy Accent #1 and assumed JFK.

  • Devin says:

    Hmm, as a Burn Notice fan, I thought the Boston accent was underplayed by Jeffrey Donovan standards.

    Speaking of TV shows, I was also amused that Nixon was played by the assistant alien from V. (And he looked really odd in the Inaugural parade.)

    This bothered me less than some other Eastwood movies, but it was still not very good.

  • Alicia says:

    My gods, thank you! My boyfriend just could not understand what made me hate that movie so much, and I couldn’t articulate it well enough beyond “Half of it feels like it’s mythologizing the man, and half of it feels like it’s taunting him for possibly being sexually confused”.

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