Few of the powerful men who helped shape America in the 20th century are as polarizing as J. Edgar Hoover considering the peaks and valleys of his nearly half-century-long reign as the director of the FBI and his closely guarded private life. However while there is much to debate about whether the heroism of Hoover’s early career outweighs the knee-jerk paranoia that clouded the end of his run at the Bureau and about what really turned on this lifelong bachelor one aspect of Hoover’s life is inarguable: this was a man who possessed a rare gift for establishing and maintaining order. Everything that fell under his control was meticulously kept in its place from the fingerprints on file in the FBI’s database to the cleanly shaved faces of his loyal G-Men.
It’s an unfortunate irony then that J. Edgar the biopic focused on this ruthlessly organized administrative genius is such a sloppy awkwardly assembled mess. Its lack of tidiness hardly suits its central character and is also shockingly uncharacteristic of director Clint Eastwood. The filmmaker’s recent creative renaissance which began in 2003 with the moody Boston tragedy Mystic River may not have been one defined by absolute perfection—the World War II epic Flags of Our Fathers for example is no better than an admirable mixed bag—but it comes to a grinding halt with J. Edgar Eastwood’s least satisfying and least coherent effort since 1999’s True Crime. There’s no faulting the attention paid to surface period details—every tailored suit and vintage car registers as authentic—but on the most fundamental level Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black (an Academy Award winner for Milk as off his game as Eastwood here) haven’t figured out what kind of movie they want to shape around Hoover’s life. For two-thirds of its running time J. Edgar devotes itself to an overly dry recitation of facts about its title character which is about as viscerally thrilling as reading Hoover’s Wikipedia page and then makes a late-inning bid for romantic melodrama totally at odds with the bloodless history-lesson approach favored by the preceding 90 minutes.
The non-chronological narrative structure Black adopts to tell Hoover’s story only adds to the overall disjointedness. Star Leonardo DiCaprio is first seen caked in old-age makeup as Hoover conscious he’s nearing the end of his tenure at the Bureau dictates his memoirs to an obliging junior agent (Ed Westwick). As Hoover describes how he began his career the movie jumps back in time to depict that origin giving the false impression that the dictation scenes with old Hoover will act as necessary structural connective tissue. Instead Black eventually abandons the narrative device altogether leaving the movie rudderless in its leaps backwards and forwards through time. As a result the shuffling of scenes depicting the young Hoover achieving great success alongside his right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and those portraying the aging Hoover abusing his power by wire-tapping progressive luminaries (such as Martin Luther King Jr.) that he mistrusts feels frustratingly arbitrary. There’s no real rhyme or reason to why one scene follows another.
DiCaprio does his best to anchor the proceedings with a precise authoritative lead performance. Although his voice is softer than Hoover’s he mimics the crimefighter’s trademark cadence with organic ease and more importantly he manifests Hoover’s unbending fastidiousness in a number of ingenious details like in the way that Hoover reflexively adjusts a dining-room chair while in mid-conversation. But Black’s limited view of Hoover as a tyrannical egotist—the script is close to a hatchet job—denies DiCaprio the chance to play a fully three-dimensional version of the FBI pioneer. Hoover is granted the most humanity in his scenes opposite Hammer’s Tolson which are by far the most compelling in the movie. Possessing no knowledge of the secretive Hoover’s romantic life Eastwood and Black speculate that Hoover and Tolson’s relationship was defined by a mutual attraction that Tolson wanted to pursue but Hoover was too timid to even acknowledge. Hammer so sharp as the privileged Winklevoss twins in The Social Network is the only supporting player given much to do—Naomi Watts’ talents are wasted as Hoover’s generically long-suffering secretary while poor Judi Dench must have had most of her scenes as Hoover’s reactionary mother left on the cutting-room floor—and he runs with it. His mega-watt charisma is like a guarantee of future stardom and he’s actually far more effortless behind the old-age makeup than veterans DiCaprio and Watts manage to be.
While the unrequited love story between Hoover and Tolson is clearly meant to provide J. Edgar with an emotional backbone the movie takes so long to get to it that it feels instead like an afterthought. Where in all the dutiful historical-checklist-tending that dominates the film is the Eastwood who flooded the likes of The Bridges of Madison County Letters From Iwo Jima and last year’s criminally underrated Hereafter with oceans of pure feeling? He’s a neo-classical humanist master who has somehow ended up making a cold dull movie that reduces one of recent history’s most enigmatic giants to a tiresome jerk.
Exposition is often an unfortunate but necessary evil in movies but at least Smokin' Aces hammers it immediately. After we are privy to everything two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) overhear during a tapped phone call at mob boss Primo Sparazza’s (Joseph Ruskin) home the table is quickly set: There’s a $1 million bounty on the head of magician Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven) for squealing. It’s a hefty sum and as we’re then told by a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck) interested in collecting the “reward ” a veritable all-star team of criminal masterminds has lined up to try and smoke Aces--including: the Tremor brothers (Chris Pine Kevin Durand Maury Sterling) a trio of uber-sadistic skinheads; a tag team of feministic hitwomen (Alicia Keys Taraji P Henson); a ruthless knife-wielding madman (Nestor Carbonell); a near shapeshifter (Tommy Flanagan) himself a sort of magician; and the bail bondsman narrator’s two buddies (Martin Henderson Peter Berg) and oddball lawyer (Jason Bateman). Not only is everyone up against the Feds but they’ll also have to survive Aces’ henchmen (Common Christopher Michael Holley) and each other’s lust for the (blood) money. Not that he’s the proverbial “lead”--no one really is--but Piven in his first true Entourage-afforded role is the story’s central figure. Surprisingly deep and multilayered Piven’s performance is very strong and affecting but buried beneath constant rapid cuts to one of the seemingly infinite other characters’ high-octane arcs. Reynolds ably switching from Van Wilder-type roles to cop with a 'tude is the closest thing to a good guy along with his partner in non-crime Liotta who was a perfect fit in the director’s Narc just like he is here. But the baddies are where the real fun’s at. It’s fine that Affleck’s role is extremely short but out of his crew for Henderson (The Ring) to get more face time than Bateman is criminal. Bateman’s performance is quick-witted a la his Arrested Development character but even funnier. Oh well--onto the musician actors: Common and Keys both essentially making debuts simply perpetuate the truism of musicians having a much easier time of acting than vice versa especially Keys who plays totally against the pop-queen image she’s built via music. Andy Garcia also has a small and predictable role as an FBI deputy and Matthew Fox makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo.
Writer-director Joe Carnahan picked a bad release time. The buzz-ards feel the need to compare it to the recently Oscar-ed The Departed and hell you'd think Pulp Fiction was just released too with the way Tarantino's name is being name-dropped. Neither is fair and truth is the only similarity is the casual bloodshed and its often comedic context courtesy of Carnahan. The director who burst onto the scene with ‘02’s aforementioned Narc doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but he’s not ripping off anyone more than any other director. He actually imparts a good deal of originality for the better part of the movie blending comedy with carnage at breakneck speeds. The issue of not having a traditional “hero” also has its pluses because you’ll never be able to look at someone’s face and name and predict his or her lifespan. But still the story is where Smokin' Aces falters. The beginning and end seem like pieces of two different flicks and nothing more than stabs at coolness is actually transpiring in between. Ultimately Carnahan’s spunky effort makes for great but forgettable fun; however you get the feeling he didn’t quite want it to be so forgettable.