Clint Eastwood’s latest bad movie is a biopic on the life and crimes of J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous long-time FBI chief. The film has all of the hallmarks of Eastwood’s cinematic turkeys – funereal plotting, miscast performers, a tedious screenplay and cinematography that aims for the artistic but only achieves the artsy.
But “J. Edgar” stands out from the other Eastwood duds because it lacks any element of unintentional humor. The only redeeming feature of Eastwood’s misfires is the joy of some cheap laughs at the expense of the on-screen bumbling: the sheer stupidity that drove “The Rookie” and “Space Cowboys”; Eastwood’s absurd John Huston imitation in “White Hunter, Black Heart”; Sean Penn’s teeth-gnashing performance in “Mystic River,” which seemed like an imitation of Frank Gorshin’s imitation of Kirk Douglas; daughter Alison Eastwood’s woefully incompetent non-star-making turn in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”; and Matt Damon’s phony blonde hair and Afrikaans accent in “Invictus.”
Without unintentional laughs to distract the viewer, “J. Edgar” succeeds in boring its audience to death. Leonardo DiCaprio, boasting bad make-up and an accent that has no connection with any specific geographical region, seems to be doing a reprise of his petulant monarch performance from “The Man in the Iron Mask.” DiCaprio’s Hoover is a ridiculous person that plays out his inner struggle with the carefully controlled angst of a daytime soap opera diva – strained line readings and exaggerated emoting that suggests a modicum of suffering amidst wonderfully opulent surroundings and fabulous costumes.
Some controversy has been carefully orchestrated on whether “J. Edgar” falls for the unconfirmed tales of Hoover’s alleged homosexuality. Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black drop unsubtle hints that the FBI had a Hoover in the closet, especially in realigning Hoover’s trusted aide Clyde Tolson as a brainless himbo for whom the FBI director had a pronounced obsession. Armie Hammer’s Tolson looks great in tailored suits, but the actor does not seem capable of delivering any of his lines without a indulging in surplus servings of wink-wink/nudge-nudge.
“J. Edgar” also conceives its title character as the worst example of the Oedipus complex, with Hoover in a Stockholm Syndrome-worthy relationship with his overbearing mother (played by a bored-looking Judi Dench). Naomi Watts is also along for the ride as Hoover’s long-term and long-suffering private secretary.
The film attempts to cover the major aspects of Hoover’s FBI career, but Black’s screenplay has a Wikipedia-level of shallowness that reduces complex issues and complicated personalities into cartoonish situations. The weird thing here is that “J. Edgar” frames its presentation as the elderly FBI chief dictating his memoirs. “It’s time to tell my side of the story!” DiCaprio’s Hoover exclaims before he launches into admitting that his life was a turgid tale of egomania, megalomania, unhealthy devotion to his mother, open admission of blackmail and other criminal acts in the pursuit of justice, racism and barely-contained homosexuality.
“J. Edgar” is not only among the year’s worst films, but it marks the rock bottom of Eastwood’s output as director.