Clint Eastwood's greatest films obliterate genre strictures and challenge audiences. "Unforgiven", a revisionist Western about a retired gunslinger resurrecting and reaffirming his own mythology, turned every trope on its head. "Mystic River", a police procedural, continued the assault with a climax so devastating it was damn near Shakespearean. And "Million Dollar Baby" took the typical underdog boxing drama and gave it spiritual transcendence in the face of bitter defeat.
His latest, "J. Edgar", a biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the notorious founder of the FBI, doesn't sit with the best of Eastwood's work; instead, it falls below even the director's recent succession of mediocre projects: "Changling", "Grande Torino", "Invictus" and "Hereafter" ranged from curiously dumb and implausible to lamely soft and spiritual. Still, the saddest part is not that Eastwood has lost his knack for bringing new life to old tales, but that he's lost even the ability to convey coherent drama.
Written by "Milk" scribe Dustin Lance Black, "J. Edgar" is sloppily structured from its first minutes. J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio), old, fat and balding (looking suspiciously like an aged Charles Foster Kane), recounts his life with a biographer in his lowly lit, brown oak, Washington office. He tells of his appointment to head of the Bureau of Investigation at 24, his purge of communist radicals, his pursuit and conviction of the Lindbergh kidnapping culprit, his hunt for infamous bandits, and his wire tapping of everyone from FDR to Martin Luther King Jr.
Eventually, the film becomes so lost in its non-linearity that the viewer gets stranded in time, confused about when and where the action on screen is taking place. As consequence, the important details of Hoover's life get lost in the shuffle. His relationships remain hollow and skimmed over: Edgar's close bond with his mother (Judy Dench) remains mysteriously superficial. In a shockingly underwritten role, Naomi Watts plays his longtime secretary Helen Grandy. Present from the beginning to the end, her insights were probably plentiful, if only the screenwriter had put some words in her mouth.
The secret, repressed love affair between Edgar and his assistant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is the only relationship of any interest to Black (he is a gay man, and Hoover was rumored to be gay). So, what could have been an examination of patriotism turned corruptive or a psychological study of a brilliant, but conflicted individual (like DiCaprio's other, far superior biopic "The Aviator") instead becomes a bloodless and boring love story about two old men who, because of their intolerant times, couldn't act on their deepest desires.
"J. Edgar" is ashamedly under-dramatized, thrill-less, style-less, indeterminably long, and features an alarming performance from DiCaprio. He deserves little to no blame for this disaster (who wouldn't want to play J. Edgar Hoover in a film directed by Clint Eastwood?), but it is a humorless, caricaturist's turn that extends a string of brooding, depressing performances from an actor who was once quite charming (let's not forget "Catch Me If You Can"). Has he become so concerned with Oscar gold and "serious-actor" recognition that he's forgotten how to be a movie star? With an indulgent screenplay and uncontrolled direction from a typically reliable traditionalist (Eastwood favors careful framing, tight editing and clear drama, usually), the actors wander around clueless -- no one seems sure what story they're trying to tell.
J. Edgar Hoover was one of the most mysterious men in American history, a Machiavellian protector who innovated so many things (like fingerprints and card catalogues), but whose reputation became marred by rumors of trampled civil liberties and gender confusion. "J. Edgar" defends neither the man nor the myth; rather, it seems afraid of its own subject, too unfocused and thematically disjointed to "print the legend" or the facts. The film's only real challenge to audiences is this: Endure all 137 minutes -- if you can.