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Review: 'J. Edgar' is duller than dishwater

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
updated 11:03 AM EST, Wed November 9, 2011
Leonardo DiCaprio is at less than his best as the rather unattractive G-Man and his accent is needless.
Leonardo DiCaprio is at less than his best as the rather unattractive G-Man and his accent is needless.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It is, quite simply, a poorly conceived and constructed film
  • The film refuses to take any position on Hoover whatsoever
  • It's too bad that one of modern cinema's great master filmmakers couldn't do more

(CNN) -- "J. Edgar" is the latest in what seems to be a never-ending trend of treating a biopic as being compelling and interesting simply because the subject may be.

The thing is, films don't work that way and while J. Edgar Hoover was indeed a fascinating man and important in our country's history, Clint Eastwood's film from a script by Dustin Lance Black ("Milk") is dull from start to finish and often bears little resemblance to the truth.

Let's be clear about one thing up front: J. Edgar Hoover was a bad guy.

He was a power-obsessed, racist paranoid with little concern for the working people, immigrants or ethnic minorities that helped build this country. He was the perfect example of someone who believed that in order to protect the United States, he was entitled to shred the document on which the country was founded, the U.S. Constitution. How or more importantly, why, those virtually undisputed facts were twisted into the mockery of history that is Eastwood's "J. Edgar" is anyone's guess.

It is, quite simply, a poorly conceived and constructed film. The through line, if you can call it that, is Hoover's narration of his so-called memoirs to a series of FBI agents tasked with taking his dictation, each segment of which leads us to a chapter in Hoover's life. His goal is clearly not to represent history -- since much of what he tells the agents is patently untrue -- and more to cement his own legacy as he sees it: A crusading champion of truth (yeah, right) justice (haw!) and the "American Way."

The problem is, there are also scenes in the film that are not part of his memoirs and at times it's hard to tell the difference between the first person and third person. Considering the film's length, there's a good chance audiences will stop caring at some point. I know I did.

CNN Photos: Historical images of J. Edgar Hoover

Blurred political history notwithstanding, "J.Edgar" is so boring as to give tedium a bad name. There's no beginning-middle-end -- and while that's not necessarily an issue in and of itself, something has to replace that traditional structure. Here it's an endless stream of flash-forwards and flashbacks of young Hoover, old Hoover, young Hoover again, not-so-young-as-young Hoover, middle-aged Hoover, gay Hoover, momma's boy Hoover, dictating Hoover. It's enough to make you dizzy.

Leonardo DiCaprio is at less than his best as the rather unattractive G-Man and his accent is needless. Hoover was from Washington, D.C. and no one cares what he sounded like. Add that to his nervous tics, strange speech patterns and barely hidden stutter and it's hard to see the forest for the trees, as it were.

Eastwood prides himself on bringing in films on time and under budget and perhaps that's why the old age makeup was so dreadful. Considering the advances in modern cinema makeup, I can't see any other reason. In portraying Hoover's long-time companion Clyde Tolson, Armie Hammer looks like a burn victim in his later years.

The thing is, Hoover was an interesting character and his story could make (and maybe has made) for a compelling literary biography. A film, however, has to have some sort of dramatic structure or tension. The audience needs either someone to root for -- or in this case, against -- and Eastwood and Black don't give this to us.

A perfect example of what could have been done is George Clooney's exceptional 2005 film "Good Night, and Good Luck," where Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov took the unvarnished villainy of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and crafted a compelling human drama around the bad guy. Granted, it wasn't billed as a biography of McCarthy, but perhaps that's the point.

An argument can be made that living your life as a self-loathing closeted homosexual, a life which Hoover has been accused of living, can turn anyone into an unpleasant, unhappy, angry person and let's for a moment assume that the theories about Hoover's closeted homosexuality are true.

Add to them what we know as fact about the man: Anti-communist, anti-labor, racist, momma's boy, socially awkward, former stutterer, paranoid, and power-hungry proponent of "the ends justify the means."

There you have an incredibly complex man and while the movie touches on many of these aspects, they leave it at that. It's like offering someone a steak without mentioning the cut, accompaniments, quality of the meat, cooking method, etc.

While Hoover is shown trying to blackmail everyone from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Martin Luther King and routinely circumventing the law, these are not portrayed as particularly bad things to do. Nor, it must be said, are they shown to be good things. Therein lies the film's major problem. It refuses to take any position on Hoover whatsoever, resulting in an overlong and uninteresting slog.

The old saying that there are two sides to every story is simply not true. Hoover was not an ambiguous villain. Rather he could be viewed as a despicable man who ruined the lives of many good people and may have caused the deaths of many of his so-called enemies. He routinely broke the law and exceeded his mandate under the guise of protecting America.

It's too bad that one of modern cinema's great master filmmakers couldn't do more with such a compelling character and important part of this country's history. Skip this and watch the aforementioned Clooney film again.

"J. Edgar" is rated R. I assume this is for strong language, as there's nothing else in the film that would warrant the rating. The film opens in limited release today and wide release on Friday.

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