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'J. Edgar' captivates top critics, leaves others cold

November 9, 2011 |  2:44 pm

J Edgar
With its A-list duo of director Clint Eastwood and star Leonardo DiCaprio, a weighty subject in FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover, and a script by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black ("Milk"), the new biopic "J. Edgar" has been widely anticipated as a candidate for award-season gold. Critical reaction to the film, which opens Wednesday in limited release, has been curiously split: A number of top critics are lauding the film, but many mainstream critics are unimpressed.

The Times' Kenneth Turan writes that "'J. Edgar' is a somber, enigmatic, darkly fascinating tale, and how could it be otherwise?" Turan calls DiCaprio's performance "impressive" and says Eastwood's "impeccable professionalism" complements "the revisionist thrust of Dustin Lance Black's script." Turan finds the film to be dense with information, ambitious in its scope (comparing the time-hopping structure to "Citizen Kane") and nuanced in its portrayal of Hoover, a man who had good things about him but for whom absolute power corrupted absolutely.

 New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis says "J. Edgar" humanizes its outsize subject and that the film "is less the story of Hoover, the public institution, than of J. Edgar, the private man." Dargis is particularly struck by "the tenderness of the love story in 'J. Edgar'" — that is, the exceptionally close and much-talked-about relationship between Hoover and his deputy, Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer. For Dargis, "it’s [Eastwood's] handling of Hoover and Tolson’s relationship that, as much as the late-act revelation of the pathological extent of Hoover’s dissembling, lifts the film from the usual biopic blahs."

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert writes, "As a period biopic, 'J. Edgar' is masterful. Few films span seven decades this comfortably." Ebert also commends the production design (the details look "effortlessly right") and the supporting cast.

David Denby, in the New Yorker, says, "'J. Edgar' … represents another remarkable turn in Clint Eastwood’s career." Denby adds, "The film moves fast, but Eastwood’s touch is light and sure, his judgment sound, the moments of pathos held just long enough. And he cast the right star as his equivocal hero-fool."

Beyond these name critics, though, "J. Edgar" is taking plenty of lumps. James Rocchi, writing for Box Office Magazine, says the film "represents a low point no Eastwood aficionado can ignore." He continues: "between Eastwood's direction and Dustin Lance Black's screenplay, what you feel leaking off the screen in every scene is missed opportunity."

Joshua Rothkopf, in Time Out New York, says, "'J. Edgar' is "infuriatingly coy and noncritical about its subject." Rothkopf adds, "Never do you fully get a sense of the reverence Hoover inspired, nor the rage."

ComingSoon.net's Edward Douglas laments, "'J. Edgar' never feels like some of Eastwood's most focused work, starting out as a dull and lifeless snoozefest and then turning into something far too erratic to be fully embraced."

And Geoff Berkshire in Metromix says that despite its "prestige pic" aspirations, the film doesn't offer much in the way of insight: "Instead we get over two hours of speculation and conjecture in a sketchy, shallow portrait of Hoover as dogged anti-Communist crusader, mama’s boy and closet case, all handled in a timid if not subtle fashion on the way to a grossly sentimental conclusion."

Time will tell which side audiences and awards align with.


Clint Eastwood is a star as as 'J. Edgar' debuts

J. Edgar Hoover was an FBI director with a grudge

The Team: Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer

— Oliver Gettell

Photo: Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer in "J. Edgar." Credit: Keith Bernstein / Warner Bros.