MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Docudrama/ Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Dan Aykroyd, Geraldine Chaplin, David Duchovny, Kevin Dunn, Anthony Hopkins, Milla Jovovich, Moira Kelly, Kevin Kline, Diane Lane, Penelope Ann Miller, Deborah Moore, Paul Rhys, John Thaw, Marisa Tomei, Nancy Travis, James Woods/ Runtime: 144 minutes
I think it is safe to start this review off by stating that the word ‘superstar’ gets thrown out with such casualness nowadays that I think a lot of people forget that there was a world at one time where this word was put aside for a few distinct individuals whose fame has gets bandied about with such disregard nowadays that it’s hard to remember there was a time when it was reserved for a very few people who had a degree of fame that was so widespread that regular fame just wouldn’t do them justice. With that being said, I think one of the first individuals who really managed to showcase just what a “superstar” was all about was a man by the name of Charlie Chaplin, a man from England who grew up in performing arts venues and who went on to be a pioneer in the world of early movie magic whilst also creating one of the most iconic characters of all time. Indeed whilst there were quite a few big names in those early days of movie magic, I find it sad to point out that the vast majority have not had the lasting and quite potent impact that Chaplin has to say nothing of the fact that none also were able to combine the disparate lands of cinema, business, and even politics to some degree on the level that he did either. Suffice it to say then that any movie goer who has had a degree of familiarity with the world of movie magic genre known as the biopic has been able to figure out they have quite the tenacity to provide audiences with an “interpretation” of the truth hence why when iconic film actor/helmer Richard Attenborough announced he wanted to make a biopic of Chaplin, quite a few people were reasonably concerned (even IF Attenborough’s take on Gandhi was truly phenomenal). Then when it was announced that Robert Downey, Jr. was going to play the titular part, I feel like that little canker sore might have exploded into a full-blown ulcer since Downey Jr. in the 90s wasn’t exactly the Downey Jr. we have with us today for reasons I will leave for you to look up for yourself. Yet, upon seeing it, I can confirm that although this movie isn’t entirely the integrity-filled movie it would like to be, it does nevertheless manages to exude a vibe and even a degree of up close and personal knowledge about this iconic performer. Yet perhaps more astonishing than that is the fact that this slice of cinematic pie manages to possess a truly revelatory performance by Downey Jr. that helped to showcase, personal issues he was dealing with at the time notwithstanding, that he was a truly great actor long before he got in front of a microphone at a press conference and announced to the world that he was Iron Man.
The plot is as follows: Using a meeting between the esteemed actor/comedian/helmer in his twilight years and his autobiographer to discuss his biography as a framework device, Chaplin regales us with the story of the life and times of one Charlie Chaplin. More than that though, this is also a story about his humble beginnings, his mother’s horrific descent into madness, his start working for a man by the name of John Karno, being recruited by Mack Sennett to start working for him in the movies, and his rise to becoming one of the most revered actors of all time even if the beginning and middle were a whole lot less rocky than the end. Included in that we also see his various ups, downs, loves (including 5 different marriages), friendships (especially with one Douglas Fairbanks), and animosities (especially between himself and J. Edgar Hoover). Through it all though, a portrait of this truly iconic man begins to emerge. One that by the time it is done will not only change the way you see Chaplin the man, but also change how you see the early world of movie magic of which Chaplin was no more and no less than grade-A royalty in forever too….
Now it should be noted that for all the critical acclaim it managed to garner, there were some reviewers who felt that Attenborough’s Gandhi biopic was a bit too reverent for their tastes. In all fairness though the man was telling the story of a figure from world history who a great many people (even to this very day) consider to be a saint of sorts (an opinion incidentally that I myself approve of). To that end, one particular issue that can be found with this slice of cinematic pie is that Attenborough decides to handle the person at the heart of this story with the same degree of reverence to the extent that whilst the movie doesn’t entirely skirt Chaplin’s personal issues, they’re more often than not seen as side effects of what has come to be known as “Great Artist Disorder”. A disorder that tries to claim that an artist’s personal issues must be comprehended and even accepted since they are a part of the same person who is giving some truly magical things to the planet. To that end, even though Charlie is often shown as the victim for a lot that happens to him in this movie, and in some cases that might have been the case, the film only offers us a singular devil’s advocate sort of character in the form of Charlie’s autobiographer who is aiding Charlie in the writing of his memoirs in the 1960s. Tragically, this lack of characters to really question Charlie and the decisions he makes results in a movie that is never challenging enough to get to the core of some of Charlie’s quirks including his desire for significantly younger than him women. Also despite the movie perhaps being a bit too long for its own good, it also is hindered by the fact that it tries desperately to cram in as much as possible from the life of Chaplin into the runtime it has been given. A problem because this man’s life and his many accomplishments/ trials and tribulations were so epic in length of time that even a close to 2 and a half hour movie like this one really feels too short thus making me feel this would’ve perhaps fared better as a limited series on TV. A fact that is perhaps showcased best when we see Attenborough insert “real world” ingredients throughout the film that will one day come back in the movies that Chaplin made. For example we see that when he is a boy there is a blind girl with a tray of apples who walks by him (cue City Lights) whilst later on in a scene by the beach, we see Chaplin do some fancy trickery with a giant beach ball in a manner that will look familiar to anyone who has seen his masterpiece The Great Dictator. Indeed it’s not just not subtle in the least, but it also gives this movie an air of wink and nod self-awareness that frankly was not necessary for it to work.
Ultimately, the key arena where this film manages to be a truly resounding success is in the performance given by Downey which is simply a revelation to behold. Yet the thing that makes Downey’s performance in this even more incredible is that he is better in the moments where he’s Chaplin the man rather than characters like The Little Tramp and he is incredible in those moments so take that into consideration. Indeed Downey is not overacting here by any stretch; if anything he is quietly and subtly inhabiting this one of a kind man’s persona in a way that makes you feel like you’re watching the actual guy instead of someone playing him. In addition, we also get a smattering of truly intriguing co-starring performances including a slightly slimy yet brilliant Dan Aykroyd as silent movie pioneer Mack Sennett and Kevin Kline, perfectly cast in my opinion, as fellow Hollywood royalty/ dear friend of Chaplin’s Douglas Fairbanks. I also felt that Kevin Dunn did good for what it was worth as J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous head of the FBI who targeted Chaplin early in the star’s career and then never let up until…well I’ll leave it for you to discover just what made him finally ease up. We also get other good work from such stars as David Duchovny who is both good yet underwritten as Chaplin’s longtime cameraman Rollie, James Woods who is appropriately slimy as a piranha of a lawyer who takes Chaplin through the wringer for reasons I shan’t spoil, and Diane Lane who is both lovely and genuine as a starlet by the name of Paulette Goddard who became Chaplin’s third wife. Yet out of everyone involved in this, perhaps the most incredible performance given, besides Downey’s, is Chaplin’s own daughter Geraldine in the role of her own non-mentally sound grandmother as she manages to be both disturbing and heartbreaking here in equal measure. Suffice it to say then that whilst this film does have its problems, let it never be said that this quite gifted cast is one of them.
The other positive that this movie has going for it is, much like he was able to accomplish with Gandhi, Attenborough manages to utilize a top-notch team behind the camera that manages to do a remarkable job at conjuring up a vast expanse of decades and locales including performance halls in London in the 20th century to early Hollywood where La Brea was by and large orange groves all the way to 1960s’ Switzerland. Indeed there is quite organic aura throughout that aids in negating both the movie’s length and moments where genuine pathos seems to be lacking. Also I really appreciated how this movie chose to utilize some of the iconic scores from Chaplin’s films including “Limelight” and “Smile.” Sadly this is countered with a brushing over of ingredients that are key to comprehending Chaplin, who he was, and what he was able to accomplish. Indeed we see that perhaps the 2 most noteworthy examples of this are the short changing of United Artists despite it being known as the first studio in the land of movie magic that offered complete control to the artists who worked with them and Chaplin’s own set of political beliefs even though they, be it just or unjustly, had repercussions on both him and his career for practically his entire life. Thus we see that by leaving such vital parts out, the film is not really able to give us a full and immersive comprehension of not just Chaplin the man, but also the things about the man which stood out above, by and large, everything else about him as well.
All in all it saddens me to say that the land of movie magic tragically was not really as interested as they once were in making slices of cinematic pie in the vein of Gandhi and Chaplin at the time that iconic actor/film helmer Richard Attenborough was able to get the money together to bring them to life. It is perhaps intriguing to note then that, in its initial release all the way back in the long gone year of 1992, Chaplin wasn’t even close to being both a runaway financial hit to say nothing of loved and adored by both critics and audiences in the same way that Gandhi was able to pull off and to me this is rather strange seeing as Hollywood has always had a distinct love affair with slices of cinematic pie that deal with itself. Therefore, I propose that the main dilemma (and the reason for the lackluster response by and large) with someone choosing to make a movie about a genuine icon of the silver screen is that when all the perks of celebrity are removed, what you are left with is a human being who, although gifted, was just as flawed (if not more so in some respects) as you or me. Make no mistake though dear reader: this movie does have its quirks and complications. Indeed not only is one that audiences might feel to be a bit too long, but it also adopts quite the reverential attitude to a person who, courtesy of certain aspects of his personal life, might not have made for a winner let alone nominee for Saint of the Year. Be that as it may be it cannot be denied that this movie does have one of the most incredible performances in the career of iconic actor Robert Downey Jr. as he is truly astonishing as the titular character. Thus when you factor that in along with a fantastic group of supporting performances as well as some truly phenomenal work from the production design team, this film might be a wee bit one note to some viewers, but dull and lifeless this most assuredly is not. On a scale of 1-5 I give Chaplin “92” a solid 3.5 out of 5.