Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" Is Not a Good Role for Leonardo DiCaprio

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Nov. 9, 2011

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Oh, Leo: You were so not made for this biopic.

The worst thing about having heroes is that they always let you down.

Clint Eastwood isn’t just my favorite director, he’s always seemed like a good role model for life. A stubbornly man’s man, he does things his own way and doesn’t listen to anyone else. But after watching J. Edgar, I’m beginning to think that might not quite be the best way to tackle things.

This is an excruciating film, almost impossible to sit through at well over two hours. Leonardo DiCaprio takes the part of the grumpy, septuagenarian, homunculear Hoover dreadfully seriously, and that might be his downfall.

Leo is a movie star who desperately wants to be a character actor. But he just can’t cut it. The kid has a smirky, preternatural charisma that he seems determined to hide under a bushel. At his best, there’s nobody better at forging a sly, conspiratorial relationship with the audience. At worst, DiCaprio feels like a kid playing dress-up in a school play.

And no movie feels more like a school play than J. Edgar , with Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay skipping along the decades allowing Hoover to outfox presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon with his newfangled Federal Bureau Of Investigation and secret files.

It’s a great story, and in many ways J. Edgar Hoover is the classic Eastwood character we’ve been watching since before Dirty Harry—a principled, ever-stalwart fellow who lets his own, un-wavering workaholic tendencies and private codes destroy his personal life, until moral gray areas blur into darkness. This is the same movie Clint Eastwood has already made 40 times over the past several decades.

Except this one is terrible.

DiCaprio is just awful. Burdened with horrific, science-fiction old-age makeup for the majority of J. Edgar ’s running time, he rants and raves to a collection of biographers, providing cheap and lazy narration where none was required. (Remember how Clint’s amazing back-to-back 1980’s biopics Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart didn’t require any explanation?)

Leonardo’s closeted, ham-fisted Hoover is frankly a chore to spend time with (as his real-life counterpart probably was) and I endured most of J. Edgar just wishing to get away from him, if only for a second. There’s no outside perspective, no relief from his drama queen shenanigans.

Burdened with a Freudian bushel-full of mother issues, thanks to a Mommie Dearest turn by Judi Dench, the stout stutterer invents library card catalogs and revolutionizes crime-fighting techniques across the land. Dame Judi tells him that isn’t enough, so he eventually tries on her nightgowns.

Enter Clyde Tolson. Played by The Social Network ’s Winkelviii Armie Hammer as a frittering, flighty queen of the FBI, the two pledge to have lunch and dinner together every day for the rest of their lives.

I’m sorry, but the sight of two handsome 30-something actors crushed under absurd old-age makeup, having an elderly bare-knuckle kiss-fight was around the point that the picture teetered into camp.

It’s a deeply silly movie. American history as kitsch, played out like a drag show. Lindbergh baby, check. Kennedy assignations and assassination check, and let’s not even get into Hoover’s deeply racist, possibly psychotic obsessions with Martin Luther King’s sex life, because the movie shies away from that, too.

Eastwood brings out some of the worst one-note celebrity impersonators I have ever seen. Bobby Kennedy is just as bad as Shirley Temple, but if you think they’re laughable just wait until Richard Milhous Nixon rears his ugly head.

I stayed up all night trying to fathom how this picture went so wrong. Even despite the obvious miscasting. In the end, I just don’t think Eastwood is good at grandeur. His best movies follow a sparse handful of characters over a very short period of time. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with production values and is really bad with crowds.

Despite his newfound prestige with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, Clint shoots best going lowbrow, from the gut. This is why Letters From Iwo Jima was so much better than Flags Of Our Fathers, and Gran Torino way more rewarding than The Changeling.

He needs to stop being so goddamn respectable.

Grade: D+
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts

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1. Anonymous said... on Nov 9, 2011 at 05:10PM

“Oh dear, you do know a lot of adjectives. Your staying up all night, trying to fathom stuff, wasn´t exactly a fruitful exercise. Sleep more, write less movie "reviews". Seriously. Stop it.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Nov 10, 2011 at 08:37AM

“I wait ever week to read one of Mr. Burns' reviews. If you don't like them, don't read them. Do you think Mr. Prigge is better? PW has its share of bad writting, Sean Burns is a bright spot for many readers.”

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3. Anonymust said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 06:12PM

“i love reading sean's reviews
they're usually insightful and almost always very well-written
funny how people take negative reviews personally and misdirect their anger at the writer
maybe our buddy's taken umbrage at sean's use of "homunclear"?
(is "umbrage" too big of a word for me to use?)

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4. Anonymous said... on Nov 15, 2011 at 11:33PM

“---Still more demoralizing POST American fare
(Mystic River/ Milion Dollar Baby/ IWO trilogy)
from Eastwood.

Meanwhile, Korea era draftee Eastwood, who NEVER
saw Korea, Eastwood, has BALKED the --20th --30th
--40th --50th and now 60th Anniversaries of the
awesomely relevant -----KOREAN WAR-----.

--------STEER CLEAR this whispery cowboy.

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5. winnie cooper said... on Feb 27, 2012 at 11:18AM

“You're a terribly pretentious and shockingly solipsistic writer. You overlooked the psychological intentions and smart handling of ambivalent feelings in favour of making fun of make-up and incidental performances by actors trying to portray real life figures. Just because you like heteronormative films that adhere to your rigid beliefs doesn't necessarily mean a movie outside of that box is "laughable." If you find this laughable, you're likely incapable of assessing a work for its greater social relevance, making you redundant and unnecessary. Stop writing.”

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