It seems like a winning formula: Unite an accomplished director (Clint Eastwood) with a gifted actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) to tell the story of a notable historical figure (J. Edgar Hoover). The recipe has been tested a dozen times over, with triumphs ("Milk"), disappointments ("Public Enemies") and middle-grounders ("Ali").
Sadly, Eastwood's drab and awkward "J. Edgar" steers closer to the disappointments category. The tedious 137-minute film features a strong cast and admirable production values such as makeup, costuming and set design. But the narrative leaps back and forth in time, fragmenting the pace and confusing the viewers. And the picture's muted gray tones coupled with monotonous piano tunes make "J. Edgar" this year's best flick for insomniacs. They'll doze right off.
DiCaprio is slightly miscast as Hoover, the first and longest-tenured director of the FBI. Eastwood endeavors to cover a lot of territory in Hoover's lengthy career, which spanned the better part of four decades. The audience follows as Hoover dictates his memoirs to a revolving door of writers, flashing back to the dawn of the FBI and some of his more high-profile challenges and achievements, such as the kidnapping and subsequent death of Charles Lindbergh Jr.
Hoover interacts with a wealth of various personalities as the FBI expands and progresses, though relationships with his longtime secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and colleague Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer of "The Social Network") are granted the most screen time. Inferences about Hoover's sexuality abound as he and Tolson develop a lifelong friendship that borders (or more?) on the romantic. In one scene, Tolson goes into hysterics when Hoover reveals that he has been dating Hollywood actress Dorothy Lamour.
Kudos to the makeup department for impressively "aging up" DiCaprio, Hammer and Watts for certain scenes. An excellent supporting cast that includes Judi Dench, Josh Lucas and Dermot Mulroney adds more thespian prowess to the proceedings. DiCaprio delivers another solid performance, though a focus on nailing Hoover's unique speech patterns keep DiCaprio from going all-out. Hammer fares well in his role and is perfectly cast, but his skills seem novice in comparison to DiCaprio's.
Watching "J. Edgar" reminded this critic of sitting in a dimly lit history class after tossing back a tablespoon of NyQuil. The film is interesting but not compelling, about a protagonist who is neither likable nor despicable. It's a solid character study, but one better suited for the History Channel or an HBO special. There is a drab undertone to the whole affair that is the cinematic equivalent of an overcast day.
American-history enthusiasts may appreciate the film's context and Eastwood's attention to detail. Here's a suggestion: Go in the morning after a cup of coffee instead of the evening after a glass of wine.