Subpar script sinks Oscar bid for ‘J. Edgar’

Bill Thomas, Assistant News Editor

For “J. Edgar,” longtime Hollywood darling Leonardo DiCaprio smolders from under several layers of rubber and latex, resurrecting one of the most nebulous, morally ambiguous figures in American history: J. Edgar Hoover, the man who made the FBI what it is today. In the director’s chair for this outing is Clint Eastwood, while “Milk”screenwriter Dustin Lance Black tackles script duties.
Can you say “Oscar-bait?”
At first glance, “J. Edgar” does seem to have all the makings of an award-worthy motion picture. But just because it follows the formula, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a surefire stunner. While DiCaprio and Eastwood are as stellar as ever, neither one is eclipsing his best work here. Black, meanwhile, falls far shorter. In fact, if any one element is to blame for “J. Edgar’s” shortcomings, his script is undoubtedly it.
That’s not to say that Black’s writing doesn’t have its strengths. Foremost is his layered interpretation of Hoover as a socially inept, insecure mama’s boy who refashions himself as a manly man of the sternest sort from within the shadow of a doting but repressive monster-matriarch. Obsessed with the secrets of others while hiding more than a few closeted skeletons of his own, the Hoover envisioned here sacrifices his very heart and soul for the sake of the nation and his own legend.
I won’t argue that “J. Edgar” is without others flaws either. Most notably, the prosthetic “old man” make-up effects here look like the ones from those Jackass skits where they dress Johnny Knoxville up like a senior citizen and have him yell vulgarities at passerby. They’re distracting to the point where even DiCaprio struggles to shine from beneath his mask of artificial wrinkles and airbrushed-on liver spots.
The biggest issue, however, remains Black’s script. Most specifically problematic is his decision to adopt a non-linear structure despite the fact that he doesn’t know how to use it.
While there’s nothing wrong with a non-linear structure in and of itself, Black’s script misappropriates the format in such a way that it robs the film of any sense of emotional continuity or progression. Character arcs are chopped up, mixed around and smooshed together. Many opportunities for mystery and tension likewise go right down the crapper. When a promise is made in one scene, the next scene anticlimactically flashes ahead a year or two so we can see the promise broken. The reaction isn’t so much “How shocking! How sad!” Rather, it’s “Well, so much for that.”
“J. Edgar” could have been a truly meaningful, masterful film. Instead, it comes across as a disappointing, muddled misstep. Close, but not close enough. As it is, “J. Edgar” isn’t as important, insightful or powerful as it wants you to think it is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still worth a look.
While glaringly imperfect, “J. Edgar” remains a genuine work of moving, multidimensional art. As such, it definitely deserves both your time and respect. It just doesn’t deserve an Oscar.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5