Director Clint Eastwood’s charcoal visual style is so wearying it dulls the brain. J. Edgar covers the adult life of the founder and director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with Leonardo DiCaprio putting his best obsessive compulsive tendencies into his performance. The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) covers the early conceptual and evolving years of the FBI program as well as the closeted gay life that led him into a furtive relationship with his second in command, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). But the screenplay is also all over the map with sporadic voice-overs that clumsily bridges the past and present (the 1930’s with the 1960’s). Naomi Watts looks the part of the painstaking secretary to J. Edgar Hoover, but whose central role suggests that the producers needed a name on the marquee. The second-rate makeup and editing is only worsted by the baked to a crisp visual look. The most interesting parts of Eastwood’s historical lore cover the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
Well, admittedly, the look contributed tonally to Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) and “Changeling” (2008), adding noir-ish or antique-ish shades. But the desaturated colors cast against the blah set decorations make it all the more lifeless this time. All you hope for are scenes of DiCaprio chewing up the scenery with his character’s gayness or power-crazed eccentricities, or not to mention his unmerited hostility towards Martin Luther King, Jr. in his later years – when that happens, more often than not, at least the film has vitality.
The 1930’s brought upon the bank robbing era, and yet, all that was covered way better in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” (2009) with a reserved Billy Crudup as Hoover. But what you do get in this film are scenes of Hoover stealing credit in order to pump up his reputation. The fussiness is elemental about his methods, they way Hoover reprimands an agent for wearing an ugly suit or firing a man for his mustache.
Then there’s the best line of the movie as delivered by Judy Dench (M. in “Casino Royale”). Dench, as the mother disappointed that her son won’t select a wife, groans, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.” Following her death some years later, the known crossdresser Hoover puts on her frumpy house dress and pearls. This behavior is accounted for and believed, but not explicitly understood.
“J. Edgar” is a good homework assignment if you stick through it for the good dialogue and for its beat on historical touchstones. But it’s tiring and wearying, unfortunately. Last: the actor who plays Richard Nixon briefly looks so unlike Nixon that I thought it was supposed to be Jimmy Carter for a moment.
137 Minutes. Rated R.
HISTORICAL DRAMA / FOOD FOR THOUGHT MOVIE / FALL SCHOLASTIC MOVIE
Film Cousins: “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984); “The Untouchables” (1987); “Milk” (2008); “Public Enemies” (2009).