Bio-pics are the scourge of modern filmmaking. Most lives don’t fit into an easy narrative, and putting lives into a two to three hour narrative often means compromising the truths of the people involved. Great artists are even more difficult as many are total shits, and often terrible human beings. For Sir Richard Attenborough’s biography of Charlie Chaplin – titled Chaplin – the rough edges are unavoidable, but the filmmakers attempt to sand them down. Chaplin (as played by Robert Downey Jr.) is a pedophile and a terrible father, and the film makes excuses for him. Perhaps audiences don’t want to see that artists they love are sometimes terrible human beings. It may ruin the illusion of great art, but it does no favors to the truth. Attenborough wants to print the legend, and that’s entertaining enough if you accept the format and the inherent dishonesty – which the narrative hope to at least game a little by suggesting that the narrator is dishonest. With an all star cast (including Kevin Kline, Dan Aykroyd, Milla Jovovich, Diane Lane, Nancy Travis, Anthony Hopkins, Moira Kelly, Marisa Tomei, and more) it’s at least diverting. My review of the Blu-ray of Chaplin follows after the jump.
Charlie Chaplin (Robert Downey Jr.) is introduced in old age working on his biography, which George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins) is trying to make work. There are questions about his story that are unanswered, and so Hayden is trying to get the truth. Had the film asserted that the majority of the film was bullshitty, this conceit might have worked better. Chaplin is shown at first hanging on the hems of his mother Hannah (Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie’s daughter and therefore playing her own grandmother), and has his first great moment on stage when he tries to save his mother’s performance. He’s shown as a natural, and then is forced away from his family when his mother can’t take care of him or his brother, and Chaplin’s put into a child labor workforce. His brother Sydney (Paul Rhys) helps him when their teens, and gets him his first on-stage gig. Chaplin is – again – a natural, and there meets the love of his life (in the film’s terms) Hetty Kelly (Moira Kelly), who he’s instantly in love with (after seeing her boobs). Shortly after an embarrassing attempt to get into high class society, he gets a job working in America, and then the pictures. But only after he recognizes the genius of cinema.
He works for Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd), and becomes an audience favorite after he creates “the little tramp.” The film suggests at first it came to him like in a dream, but then shows that it was hard work. This is the only scene that suggests the bifurcation of truth versus reality, something that should have plagued the film. When he becomes successful his brother comes over to manage him, and a series of women enter his life (Milla Jovovich, Penelope Anne Miller, Deborah Lewis, Diane Lane) that serve as his co-stars or lovers. Some of whom are underage, or at least look it. Chaplin likes them young, and the film can’t hide that, but also tries to contextualize it. He becomes friends with Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline) and Mary Pickford (Maria Pitillo), while also pissing off Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn) for sympathizing with the underclass. Hoover’s dialogue could easily be a Bill O’Reilly Talking Points Memo.
With the advent and popularity of sound, Chaplin keeps making silent movies, partly because his accent is terrible, partly because he recognizes the universal appeal of his character. He attracts haters, but they don’t get it. He alienates wives because he is a workaholic. He’s a great artist, damn it! But eventually Hoover gets his revenge, and his political stand in The Great Dictator gets him booed.
If the film is saved from being nothing more than a puff piece, it’s because the film was shot by Sven Nykvist and scored by John Barry. The two do their best to make the film more than the sum of its parts. Downey does a good Chaplin, though when the film attempts to capture the Chaplin vibe it’s interesting in spite of it trying a little too hard. But Barry, Nykvist and Attenborough bring a scale to the proceedings that the narrative lacks. Chaplin deserves being hailed as a hero to some extent, but I wish they could capture his terribleness/greatness like Milos Foreman did in Amadeus. Instead this is an apology tour, and when the film shows a clip gallery of the real Chaplin it does not feel a piece with the film so much a celebration of an artist’s greatness that the filmmakers were unable to achieve.
Lionsgate’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 2.0 stereo. Those it’s surprising they didn’t go 7.1, the majesty of John Barry’s work here is still glorious, and the transfer offers nothing to complain about. The film comes with a number of featurettes: “Strolling into the Sunset” (7 min.) gets Attenborough, biographer David Robinson, critic Robert Schickel, and son of Chaplin Michael Chaplin to talk about the film and the artist, and they are all brought back for “Chapin the Hero” (6 min.), and “The Most Famous Man in the World” (5 min.). Basically it’s a twenty minute piece broken into three sections. “All At Sea: Chaplin Home Movie” (2 min.) offers home movie footage of Chaplin, and the disc concludes with the film’s theatrical trailer and additional bonus trailers.