Chaplin Review

Chaplin_12236113362_500No sub-genre is so rife with mediocrity as the celebrity bio-pic. The plot structure is absurd: portray a star from their birth to their death while hitting every famous moment they’ve ever had, their childhood, their love life, and their art/sport/money making, oh, and do it all in 2 hours. Every life, reduced to 2 hours, looks the same. It’s not that you can’t make an interesting film about a popular figure (although I’ve never seen a great one), but you have to either pick a single defining moment in his life (Capote, Good Night and Good Luck), or just get weird with it (I’m Not There, Last Days). But honestly, Ray, Walk the Line, Amelia, Ali, Finding Neverland, or La Vie En Rose? They’re all the same movie.

And don’t try and tell me about the lead actor’s great performance. That’s the only value to these movies: cheap star vehicles in which one famous person imitates another famous person’s famous idiosyncrasies. “But he sounds so much like the real David Bowie!” Shut up. How hard is it to imitate a man or woman of whom there are hours upon hours of recorded material in a series of over-determined clichéd scenes either about heartbreak or creative genius?

Right, so anyway, Chaplin completely falls into all these traps of the celebrity biopic, but is still pretty good! It is the perfect expression of this sort of film. Robert Downey Jr. nails Charlie Chaplin’s signature waddle and physical comedy, and plays Chaplin with his trademark irony and charm, but also fills him with a boyish naivete that makes Chaplin at once vulnerable and more impressive (see, I’m complimenting the star’s performance right off the bat. It’s just the natural response). And by having a clever framing device, in which a 70 year old Chaplin happily talks about his (actually existing) auto-biography with his (created for the film) book editor (Anthony Hopkins), the film undercuts the bullshit “it’s so lonely at the top” narrative that always defines this garbage genre.

And the cast, oh man, the cast. So many stars! Kevin Kline, David Duchovny, Milla Jovovich, Dan Aykroyd, Marissa Tomei, Geraldine Chaplin, Diane Lane, and one of my all time favorite screen actors, James Woods, all have decent turns. Chaplin’s Oliver Twist-esque childhood in London and his start in early Hollywood avoid total “birth of the star” cliché because director Richard Attenborough (and some excellent art design) fill the locales with character and charm.

The film really boils for the first half, but when it comes to focus on his later career (in particular the making of Modern Times and The Great Dictator) it falls into the trap I knew it couldn’t avoid. The fact is, Charlie Chaplin was a committed leftist, strongly opposed to Nazism and the economic conditions that caused the Great Depression. He was no communist, but the film makes it seem that he acted out of a sort of weak, liberal humanism rather than true conviction. But what did you expect? A bio-pic that truly reflected a person’s political commitment? Go watch Carlos or Che or Hunger you hippy. (No, seriously, go watch those movies. They’re awesome.)

Still, Chaplin’s strength reveals the core weaknesses of this sub-genre. It too greatly reduces the meaning of Charlie Chaplin’s life (especially by having the film end, in one of the worst decisions I’ve ever witnessed, with Chaplin appearing at the Oscars to accept his lifetime achievement award) by necessity of covering too much ground. Though it gets closer than any other celebrity bio-pic I’ve seen, it still fails to really convey the contextual importance of Chaplin’s work. Most importantly of all, though, it didn’t say anything important about Chaplin the man as he relates to Chaplin the artist in a way that makes me reconsider either.

Because the fact of the matter is, when you make a film about someone, you have to make choices. What part of their life do you want to portray? What do you want to say about this person? The myth of the birth-to-death biopic is that you don’t have to make those choices, that you could truly capture the meaning of someone’s life by portraying scenes from beginning to end. But that’s the whole trick of Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud.” The profundity of a man’s life is not found in his childhood, or his last words, which end up more often than not an absurd nothing. No, a life cannot be so easily captured, perspectives are skewed by personality and the man’s own perception is meaningless in the face of the effects he has on the world.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

A featurette talking about how great Downey Jr. was as Chaplin, a featurette about how great Charlie Chaplin was, a featurette about how great a star Charlie Chaplin was, and a great little home movie of Chaplin’s. Theatrical Trailers. It will look good on your HDMI cable for sure.


"Chaplin" is on sale February 15, 2011 and is rated PG13. Biopic. Directed by Richard Attenborough. Written by Diana Hawkins, William Boyd, Bryan Forbes, William Goldman. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, David Duchovny, Diane Lane, Geraldine Chaplin, Kevin Kline, Marisa Tomei, Milla Jovovich, Moira Kelly , Robert Downey Jr, James Woods.

Willie Osterweil


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