Pretty much everything that's bothersome about director Clint Eastwood's biographical drama J. Edgar is only bothersome for the movie's first half hour. That may sound like a lot of time spent bothered. But the film does run 135 minutes, even its weakest moments are by no means awful, and in the end, it emerges as a really fine work with a really fine central performance. So as a nod to J. Edgar (the movie, not the man), let's just get it out of the way and address its failings at the start.
They begin, unfortunately enough, with practically the first sight and sounds in the film. The sight is our introduction to J. Edgar Hoover - the de facto creator of the FBI and its most famous director - in his twilight years, and the image is problematic because it's borderline-impossible to gaze at this figure and not think, "Wow, they sure made Leonardo DiCaprio look like a turtle." As prosthetic makeup goes, the aging and weight-adding effects are impressively rendered, and the contact lenses that make the star's irises appear black are a shrewd touch; Hoover's eyes don't feel like the windows to any kind of soul. But the buried DiCaprio still appears lacquered, and because fake flesh just doesn't move the way real flesh does, he's sadly deprived of facial mobility in Hoover's old-man scenes. In general, you're all too aware of J. Edgar's makeup as makeup, and the distraction is magnified when Naomi Watts (as Hoover's devoted secretary Helen Gandy) and Armie Hammer (as Hoover's longtime companion Clyde Tolson) arrive sporting their late-age cosmetics. (Hammer's makeup, in particular, seems all wrong; Tolson is meant to be several years younger than Hoover, but the prosthetics make him look about 20 years older.)
The early, off-putting sounds, meanwhile, are the opening strains of J. Edgar's music, because, yes, Eastwood has composed yet another of his sluggish, piano-driven, pathos-drenched scores that make you dread the brown- and gray-hued melancholy to come. (If you're wondering how the 81-year-old Clint has the energy to film a new release every year and be responsible for their new scores, it's perhaps partly because the scores, at least, aren't new.) Between the music and cinematographer Tom Stern's handsome yet overly somber lighting and color palette, the movie is initially, unhappily reminiscent of Changeling and Flags of Our Fathers and Hereafter mopiness, and déjà vu of a different sort arrives once you glean the presentational structure of Dustin Lance Black's screenplay. With its leading character dictating his personal history and professional accomplishments for posterity, and flashbacks giving visual life to the man's recollections, and narrative toggling between the past and present, isn't this the same bio-drama blueprint that Black recently employed for his Oscar-winning script for Milk?
And then there's DiCaprio, who, at the film's start, appears to be trying so hard that the trying is all you see. You sense that DiCaprio knows he's fundamentally miscast as J. Edgar's stocky, pugnacious, vindictive, sexually repressed Hoover, and is consequently working overtime to mask the miscasting, which he mostly does through dogged professionalism, a serviceable mid-Atlantic accent, and intense focus. Yet as often happens with the actor, that focus is so intense that even Hoover's more emotionally unguarded bits - introducing Gandy to his prized library filing system, sharing a bitchy laugh with Tolson over Desi Arnaz's unwise choice of shoes - appear too practiced. To be sure, in Eastwood's film, this is fitting for a figure who had to maintain a stoic public façade. But like Tom Cruise in his more dramatic efforts, DiCaprio is so relentlessly on here, and so incapable of appearing completely in the moment, that nothing he does feels like it's happening for the first time; as in The Aviator or Blood Diamond or Revolutionary Road, you can admire his work without necessarily believing it. (In a series of marvelously well-cast cameos, actors such as Ken Howard, Jessica Hecht, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas, Denis O'Hare, and Stephen Root demonstrate what true character immersion looks like.)
J. Edgar, though, turns out to be the damnedest thing, in that all of its early flaws are not only counterbalanced by later strengths, but wind up yielding rather extraordinary dividends. True, the makeup initially seems like too much. Yet it no longer does two hours into the movie, when Eastwood's unexpectedly sensitive handling of Hoover's and Tolson's relationship - coupled with Black's gracefully telling dialogue - allows you to consider the old, unhappy men as actual people, and not as actors swathed in latex. The music and photography may be dour, but they prove perfect for suggesting the crushing weight of Hoover's home life with his imperious mother (Judi Dench), and for the film's occasionally stark and evocative imagery, such as the horrific, heartbreaking shot of the Lindbergh baby's skeletal remains lying in the weeds a few hundred yards from his home.
Black's script may, at first, seem to be taking a safe and familiar structural route, but only because we're not yet clued in to what the writer is up to; by the movie's final scenes, what began as a "Hoover's greatest hits" package emerges, much like its leading figure, as far more unpredictable and subversive than we could have guessed. And blessed with inspiringly unforced, truthful acting partners in Watts, Hammer, and Dench, DiCaprio eventually gets beautiful performance rhythms going with each of them, and by the film's final 20 minutes, digs so deeply into Hoover's delusions and self-denial and sadness that the results are wrenching; you stare at those black, haunted eyes and see nothing but soul. J. Edgar may take a while to get rolling, but by the time its end credits are rolling, you may agree that the wait was worth it.
Quite early in director Tarsem Singh's Greeks-versus-the-gods action fantasy Immortals, in the midst of a discussion with an aged holy man, the growling, menacing Mickey Rourke (not that you needed those adjectives) says, "Let me enlighten you, priest," and then does ... by setting the poor guy on fire. For my money, this was all I needed to hope that Singh's cheesy, ultra-violent outing would end up a pretty good crappy movie, and that's exactly what it is. In order for it to be a great crappy movie, it needed a somewhat more obscenely stupid script, and actors less capable than this film's Rourke, John Hurt, and Luke Evans. (Though that latter failing is at least mitigated by the presence of the gorgeous but eternally vapid Freida Pinto, and by Henry Cavill, whose leaden performance as Immortals' Theseus makes me even more leery of Zack Snyder's forthcoming Man of Steel, in which Cavill plays Superman. Uh oh.) But still: Rourke's King Hyperion ogling concubines and devouring plums in the shadows like a B-movie Colonel Kurtz? Virgin oracles with headpieces resembling lampshades and chandeliers? A turncoat punished for his treachery by taking an outsize croquet mallet to the crotch? A god splattering the craniums of eight assailants in the time in takes the first body to hit the floor? Stephen freakin' Dorff, for Pete's sake? Immortals isn't perfect, but considering our current cineplex options, it's close to trash-flick paradise.
JACK & JILL
Based on the jaw-dropping trailers for the Adam Sandler vehicle Jack & Jill - in which the star plays his typically hostile and unfunny self and his beyond-shrill, equally unfunny twin sister - I kind of expected director Dennis Dugan's latest Happy Madison production to be the worst movie of all time. As it's only, to date, the worst movie of the year (keeping in mind that I haven't yet seen Happy Madison's Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star), I feel vaguely cheated. I can't, however, say the same for those joining me in the packed auditorium, who cackled at girl Sandler's farts and "Aw-w-w-w!"-ed when this hulking beast couldn't score a date, and who vocalized their star-struck amazement when Jared from the Subway-sandwich commercials showed up. These are nefarious times we live in, folks, so we may as well just admit that this thunderously inept, stunningly lazy effort is exactly what millions of Americans are looking for ... including, apparently, the formerly brilliant screen hack Al Pacino, playing himself here for reasons known only to his accountant, or perhaps his shrink. In one Jack & Jill scene set in Pacino's living room, la femme Sandler accidentally breaks the man's Oscar, shrugging off her clumsiness with, "You must have others." "You'd think it," Pacino replies, "but oddly enough, I don't." Trust me, Al, there's nothing odd about it.