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STUDIO: Lions Gate
RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes
• All at Sea Chaplin home movie
• 3 Featurettes
• Theatrical trailer
Before Robert Downey Jr. was Iron Man he was…The Tramp.
Actors: Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Hopkins, Geraldine Chaplin, Kevin Kline, Dan Aykroyd
Director: Richard Attenborough
“Figuring out what the audience expects, and then doing something different, is great fun to me.”
This quote from the man himself really says it all when summing up what Charlie Chaplin means to American cinema. He was a performer who knew the workings of the silent screen and how to manipulate it for maximum effect, and with the creation of his character known simply as “The Tramp” he created an icon. From the dizzying comedy of Modern Times to the pathos of The Kid, Chaplin created cinematic gems that, nearly a hundred years later, continue to entertain. Along the way he made friends with some of the biggest names of the entertainment world, enemies with the heaviest hitters in politics, and wives of some very young ladies.
Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin is not a very good movie. That is not to say it’s a terrible movie either. It’s just sort of there, like a Big Mac sitting in your stomach; it is consumed, but leaves no lasting memory or fulfillment. That’s the true shame of the film. Almost everything is in place to make this a classic; it looks beautiful, the acting is top notch, the director has a good grasp on what makes a successful biopic (Attenborough’s Gandhi won best picture, director and actor Oscars, as well as a few more in 1982) and the source material that the script was written from, Chaplin’s own autobiography, seems like it was written to be made into a film. So where does it go wrong? It’s the script, plain and simple.
When someone brings up Charlie Chaplin what images are conjured up in your mind? Is it Chaplin as The Tramp, with his too big shoes, too tight jacket and bowler hat? Is it his physical humor in films like The Gold Rush, or more subtle comedy like his dancing dinner rolls routine? Whatever it is you think of, the thought usually ends with you smiling, remembering a favorite bit or image. The makers of Chaplin must not have the same thought process, because the movie plays for more than two hours seemingly unconcerned with what made one of the most revered entertainers in film history tick. Sure, there are scenes of Chaplin working on his films, but this picture is much more interested in other tales.
Chaplin had a complicated life, especially in his early years. His mother was a failed stage performer who ended up in asylums, leaving Charlie and his older brother to fend for themselves. The movie does a good job setting up these early years in England, but rather quickly moves from a ten year old kid trying to make a living on his own to a much older Chaplin who, in the blink of an eye, and without any real on screen explanation, has honed his craft and is already at the top of his game and ready to strike out for the United States. Rather than take the time to show the audience the training and discipline that he put into his stagecraft, we get the first setup that Chaplin digs the young chicks, as he falls in love and unsuccessfully proposes marriage to a young dancer in his theater troupe.
To have a little romance is fine, but most of this movie revolves around Chaplin chasing the idea of this beautiful young first love with a succession of other young ladies throughout his life (so many dalliances, that it is hard to keep track of them during the film). Chaplin was married four times and had affairs with many more girls, all of them were much younger than him, and while the movie tries to fit all the love interests in, it never digs too deeply into why he was so into very young women, making it a moot point. This to me is the least interesting part of Chaplin’s life, but if a movie is going to spend three-fourths of it’s time dealing only with it, rather than explore a more interesting topic with clearer vision (Chaplin’s role in the forming of United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and W.D. Griffith would have been nice to see as more than an afterthought), then really get in there and explain it.
The movie also attempts to delve into Chaplin’s very stormy relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, The head of the FBI who was no fan of “The Little Tramp”, but again the script, which never seems to be able to gel on any specific part of Chaplin’s life, cannot get a good enough grasp on the subject to give it any impact. As far as the film is concerned the hatred Hoover had for Chaplin was brought on because Chaplin snubbed him at a dinner party. While it is no secret that Chaplin’s Political ideas of his era definitely leaned toward Socialist, and that some of his films contained communist themes, the movie just has a few audience members yell “communist!” at the screen while The Great Dictator is playing instead of showing how Chaplin’s political leanings clashed with Hoover’s (as well as Hoover’s paranoia regarding celebrities) to the point that when he headed off to England to promote a new film, Hoover had him kicked out of the USA for good.
Those are the major problems with Chaplin, and while they are only two they essentially make up ninety percent of the movie’s run time. From 1914 till 1919 Charlie Chaplin made over sixty movies, and while we only catch small glimpses of a few of their productions in the film, it is when the movie truly shines. Robert Downey Jr., who had not anchored a serious picture as the lead until this role completely carries the film on his shoulders (and earned an Oscar nomination for his efforts). The tone of the movie is serious most of the time, and Downey does a great job of illuminating the amount of pressure that Chaplin put on himself as a filmmaker with full creative control over his movies. Again, it would have been nice if the story would have allowed for more moments of Downey’s Chaplin actually creating the films that audiences loved so much instead of brooding over having to create them, but the message that Chaplin was a perfectionist really comes through in this performance. What would have been nice would have been more light moments for Downey to work with. When the future Iron Man does the Dinner Roll routine for guests, the boyish charm shows through brightly, and it’s at these moments that I felt I was going to really start connecting with the film. Unfortunately this scene was while he was only on his first wife, so there was no more time for fun, there were three more marriages to go.
The rest of the cast does an equally good job in the movie; Dan Aykroyd is the standout among the supporting cast as Mack Sennett, the main man behind most of the slapstick comedies of the silent screen, and the man who helped make Charlie Chaplin a star. Sure he chews up a bit of scenery when he’s on screen, but he also goes a long way helping bring to life the “flying by the seat of your pants” energy that went into early movie production.
I could bitch and moan all day about what keeps this movie from being great, or just really good, but the movie does it for me just fine. In a scene toward the end of the film when Anthony Hopkins (playing the only fictional character in the movie) is grilling an elderly Chaplin in order finish editing his autobiography, Chaplin replies “If you want to understand me, watch my movies”…another quote that sums things up pretty succinctly, too bad the filmmakers didn’t read into that line a little more.
I really would have liked a commentary track from Attenborough if only to hear what was going through his mind while Chaplin was in production (or better yet, to possibly hear an admission that it was a bad idea to make a biography of a beloved comedian so devoid of laughter), but alas there is no commentaries to be had. Instead we get three new featurettes; one about Chaplin himself, one about Robert Downey’s portrayal, and a third about the production. The third one is particularly interesting because Attenborough does make some comments regarding his mixed feelings about the movie, but it’s too short (it’s always too short when dirt is getting dug up). There is also an excerpt from a home movie taken by a Chaplin pal while they were all sailing on Chaplin’s sailboat, and while it is apparently a piece of lost history that has never been seen by the public before, it really isn’t any more interesting than any other home movie you would to sit through.