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By Brad Cook | October 14, 2008

I’m not surprised that Lionsgate timed this DVD’s release with the home video debut of Robert Downey, Jr.’s “Iron Man.” They obviously wanted to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the actor, but I think they also struck a parallel between Downey and the comedic giant he plays in “Chaplin.” While Charlie Chaplin’s vice was speaking his mind, rather than indulging in drugs and alcohol, both actors experienced meteoric rises to fame, battles with personal demons, inevitable falls from grace, and resurrections of their careers. We’ll see how Downey completes his own third act.

Bio pics tend to be tough, especially when the focus is someone like Chaplin. How do you compress such a rich life into two hours and 15 minutes? Director Richard Attenborough and screenwriters William Boyd, Bryan Forbes, and William Goldman did an admirable job, unspooling Chaplin’s life at a brisk pace while hitting the mandatory highlights, from his involvement with various women (not all of whom were legal age at the time) to the creation of Little Tramp to J. Edgar Hoover’s harassment. Watching the movie again 15 years after I first saw it, I still think Downey’s performance is incredible. The best historical movies make you feel like the filmmakers went back in time with cameras to shoot a documentary, and “Chaplin” accomplishes that feat.

All of which begs the question: Who will play Downey in the inevitable bio pic about him?

Unfortunately, this DVD isn’t up to expectations, so I’ve knocked half a star off my rating. There’s no commentary, and the handful of featurettes only add up to about 20 minutes. Attenborough, film critic Richard Schickel, Chaplin’s son Michael, and biographer David Robinson appear in all of them to look back on the making of the film, discuss Chaplin’s legacy, and explain how big of a star he was during his day.

A fourth featurette contains about 2.5 minutes of a Chaplin home movie, shot by journalist Alistair Cooke in 1933 as the two sailed aboard Chaplin’s yacht with his soon-to-be third wife, Paulette Goddard. Chaplin mugs for the camera and does a few impressions. It’s described as an excerpt; too bad the whole thing couldn’t be shown, along with other archival footage of him.

While “Chaplin” is a fine bio pic, it’s a shame that Lionsgate didn’t turn this into a two-disc set and provide us with a longer documentary chronicling the making of the film, along with additional information about Chaplin’s life. None of the cast appears in any of the bonus features, and the way Schickel and Attenborough gush over Chaplin’s genius, I was left wondering why we couldn’t hear more about it.

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