Have you ever seen an overzealous costume drama that reveled in its own fantastical wardrobe department more than anything? Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is kind of like that, only it gets caught up in its advanced makeup effects instead — prompting me to declare it a “makeup drama.” Like its clothing-oriented period-piece cousins, this Hollywood spectacle brings us a fictionalized account of the life of the notorious and enigmatic architect of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover. And a Tinseltown exhibition it is, too: in keeping up with the many other ambitious biopics that preceded it, J. Edgar has this pretentious “Give us an Oscar” vibe to it in almost every frame.
Embroidering as much gusto as he possibly can, pretty boy DiCaprio dives in headfirst as J. Edgar Hoover (who was anything but pretty) — and every line he delivers seems like it should have the words “Oscar Clip” flashing onscreen à la Wayne’s World. The rest of Eastwood’s too-attractive-to-be-taken-seriously lead actors — Armie Hammer (a registered trademark of Church and Dwight), Naomi Watts, and Dame Judi Dench (as Hoover’s mum) — do much of the same. A venerable host of familiar faces and character actors including Josh Lucas, Jeffrey Donovan, Stephen Root, Lea Thompson, Christian Clemenson, and Dermot Mulroney also appear in minor performances, though there are so many of said small roles that they get lost in the shuffle.
Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black brings us a yarn that is realistically suited for knitting more than anything. Most of the movie has an elder Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio, under a lot of makeup) recounting his earlier days to a ghost writer for an autobiography, giving Black the opportunity to jump around from the present to the past (wherein DiCaprio wears less makeup) in that annoying, non-linear “I didn’t know what else to do” method so many writers do. Black also seems to be perfectly content with leisurely cruising by most of Hoover’s important contributions, as his achievements, failures, and shenanigans alike are never brought forth the way we like to see them.
Even the attempts to focus on Hoover’s personal life (of which we know virtually nothing) are made in passing. Two of the most controversial aspects of Hoover’s existence are the long purported beliefs that he was both gay and a cross-dresser (they’re two entirely different things, kids — I speak from experience!). Black definitely brings both facets to light (albeit in thoroughly noninvasive ways), but quickly subverts them by returning them to the dark again. Frankly, if he wanted to portray Hoover as gay, he should have done so. Ditto with the transvestism. As it stands, J. Edgar is just a hodgepodge of powerhouse moments interjected with a lot of ho-hummery.
Oh, and makeup. Lots and lots of makeup. That’s what this movie is all about, really: how silly several young actors can look as old people thanks to a number of prosthetic pieces and bald caps. DiCaprio pulls it off just fine, though Mr. Hammer (please, don’t hurt ’em!) — as Hoover’s longtime “companion” Clyde Tolson — should have spent a little more time at a nursing home in order to act the part instead of just look it.
Warner Home Video brings us a beautiful transfer for such an unattractive moving picture with a boisterous 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Oddly enough, there’s only one special feature to be found here: a featurette about the real J. Edgar Hoover entitled “The Most Powerful Man in the World,” with snippets from the movie’s cast and crew. As you can guess, this sole extra is more interesting than the main feature itself, though it’s a fleeting affair, and hardly worth it overall.
My advice: rent this one. Or better still, read one of the many dozens of books about J. Edgar himself.