Sad as it is to report, his latest, the star-studded J. Edgar, lands with a hollow thud in the sorry latter category. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, the legendary FBI first director, the film falls prey to almost every damning pitfall of the biopic genre. Meandering, underbaked, and almost entirely devoid of depth or emotion, Eastwood’s movie plays less like a cinematic narrative than an exhausting series of historical “greatest hits” moments stretched over a punishing 135 mins. I’ll be utterly gobsmacked if there’s a more tedious prestige picture this year.
Although the details of Hoover’s personal life are sketchy at best, Eastwood’s film paints him as a socially inept loner, clinging to the apron strings of his dominating mother Anna Marie (Judi Dench) for much of his life. He has only two other confidents: loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Tolson, the movie argues, was also Hoover’s clandestine lover, a man of infinite patience who spent an inordinate amount of social time with his high maintenance superior.
Undeniably, there are multiple nuggets for a fascinating motion picture strewn throughout J. Edgar. However, the script by Dustin Lance Black – who previously penned an infinitely better biopic with 2008’s Milk – jumps around too much to gain any momentum. This film desperately lacks a coherent throughline; it’s a confusing series of half-formed ideas, grafted onto a flimsy narrative structure, that never bond into anything substantial. There’s no drama to this story, only exposition, dull minutiae and bloodless recreation. No concrete reason to care about Hoover’s (heavily fictionalized) on-screen life or his valuable achievements. There’s a brief tantalizing bit where a supporting character references J. Edgar’s aggressive, and extremely successful, tactics for rewriting his and the FBI’s role in popular culture through comic books and movies. Couldn’t Eastwood have cut out a handful of dreary sequences of Hoover dictating his life-story and fleshed out fascinating material like that?!
The character of Hoover could have been explored more satisfyingly if the picture hadn’t short-changed the key players surrounding him. Armie Hammer has a genuinely strong presence, but his Clyde Tolson is an utter blank. It’s nearly impossible to name any characteristics that describe his personality beyond “loyal.” Like Naomi Watts’ underutilized secretary, he’s just there for DiCaprio to bounce lines off of – a limited function which proves disastrous in the love story-heavy second half. On the flip side of the equation, Judi Dench brings lioness-like severity to her role as Mama Hoover, and owns the film’s single best scene, bitterly recalling one of J. Edgar’s homosexual childhood classmates. However, despite her alleged impact of her son’s life, she receives depressingly little screen time.
1.5 out of 5
*Originally published at Converge Magazine.