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Published: Friday, November 11, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives it his all, but 'J. Edgar' comes up short

  • Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover and Armie Hammer as his secnd-in-command Clyde Tolson start in the drama "J. Edgar," directed by Clint Eastwood.

    Associated Press

    Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover and Armie Hammer as his secnd-in-command Clyde Tolson start in the drama "J. Edgar," directed by Clint Eastwood.

  • Leonardo DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover and Judi Dench portrays his mother, with whom Hoover lived well into middle age, in "J. Edgar."

    Warner Bros

    Leonardo DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover and Judi Dench portrays his mother, with whom Hoover lived well into middle age, in "J. Edgar."

Is "J. Edgar" a big performance in search of a movie? That's the first impression, as Clint Eastwood's biopic about the longtime director of the FBI arranges itself around Leonardo DiCaprio's turn as the title character.
At this point, DiCaprio has established that he is nothing if not a serious actor, who relishes the opportunity to change his appearance and plunge himself into yet another heavy, neurotic part.
He doesn't seem like the right casting for the stocky, bulldog-like J. Edgar Hoover, the homely weirdo who ran the FBI as his personal principality for decades. It was said that even presidents (especially presidents) feared what Hoover knew about them.
The script by "Milk" writer Dustin Lance Black is told through the reliable device of an aged Hoover dictating some of his memoirs. Although not so reliable, in this case: Hoover might be coloring the truth a bit in narrating his story to a series of secretaries.
Drawn in dark-lit images drained of color, "J. Edgar" balances Hoover's efforts to win public approval for his agency with his somewhat peculiar personal life: He lived with his mother well into middle age, and he maintained a decades-long relationship with his assistant, Clyde Tolson, which has caused a great deal of speculation about the never-married Hoover's sexual orientation.
Eastwood's direction is calm and even-handed. He does careful work in suggesting how Hoover fails to evolve as a human being, including repeating certain images and gestures from the 1920s to the 1970s.
In particular, Eastwood seems drawn to the idea of a life led in secret, from Hoover's mysterious relationship with Tolson (nicely played by Armie Hammer, the actor who played both Winklevoss twins in "The Social Network") to the "secret files" Hoover kept on various public officials. By legend, these were the source of his great power.
Compared to the secrecy, the casework (the notorious kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby, for instance) seems dutiful, rather than inspired. But then it's hard to root for J. Edgar Hoover, an unpleasant person whose methods were questionable, to say the least.
The film has a peculiar, dry approach to this difficult material, and it doesn't lead the audience to any easy answers (or even reactions). An objective-observer figure, Hoover's loyal secretary (Naomi Watts), is something of a blank.
DiCaprio, who loves the chameleon approach to acting, happily throws on the old-age makeup and the rat-a-tat voice. It's an impressive technical display, although shy of tragic or monstrous qualities. The result is a movie without a strong point of view, which feels odd, considering the long shadow of Hoover's life.
"J. Edgar" (2˝ stars)
Clint Eastwood's even-handed look at the life of the weirdo director of the FBI, focusing on his power-brokering and his longtime relationship with his assistant (Armie Hammer). Leonardo DiCaprio brings great enthusiasm and commitment to the role of J. Edgar Hoover, but somehow this serious performance seems to be searching for the right movie.
Rated: R, for language, subject matter.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Mall, Edmonds, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Metro, Pacific Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.
Story tags » Movies

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