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Early Reviews of 'J. Edgar'

So the reviews are in from last night's first public screening of "J. Edgar," and they are about what I expected: The film got mixed notices, but everyone agrees Leonardo DiCaprio is teriffic in the title role. I tend to agree with Gregory Ellwood at HitFix, who believes it's going to come down to George Clooney vs. Leonardo DiCaprio for the role. In my opinion, Leo has the advantage. Clooney is quite good in an excellent film; DiCaprio is excellent in a mediocre movie. And he gets a lot to dig into: as the FBI Director, DiCaprio gets to play gay, deliver speeches penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and die. That's a pretty great trifecta.

As for the film itself, it feels like a standard Clint Eastwood film. Which is to say that it's a fine rough draft, but misses its potential to be truly great. Much has been made of Eastwood's shooting style, how he doesn't spend a lot of time with actors and often films rehearsals--sometimes even using that footage in the final cut. I remember seeing "Hereafter" last year and for the first 20 minutes, thinking I was seeing one of the best films of the year. Then it fell apart. I was not surprised to later learn from screenwriter Peter Morgan that he only wrote one draft of the script--Eastwood didn't want him to do any further revisions. As a result, the resulting film was more frustrating than anything, full of missed opportunities and underdeveloped ideas.

"J. Edgar" has some great moments, but overall it falls short of the mark. Todd McCarthy at The Hollywood Reporter gave it one of its more positive notices,  stating: "This surprising collaboration between director Clint Eastwood and 'Milk' screenwriter Dustin Lance Black tackles its trickiest challenges with plausibility and good sense, while serving up a simmeringly caustic view of its controversial subject's behavior, public and private." Over at Variety, Peter DeBruge calls the film "understated" and notes "a more outre Oliver Stone-like approach might have made for a livelier film," a statement I couldn't agree more with. It's all too tame, such as what DeBruge calls its "kid-gloves depiction" of some of Hoover's more loathsome manipulations. The harshest early review comes courtesy of Glenn Heath Jr. at Slant, who seems to take the film very personally. "My worst fears have been realized. For the first time, I can't excuse the bull Clint Eastwood is selling. I can't even come close," he writes. He goes on to call DiCaprio's performance "repellent" and says: "...as 'J. Edgar' clumsily shifts from past to present, indulging Hoover's distrusting historical perspective at every turn, Eastwood's film becomes a suffocating bore of indulgent orating, faux-historiography, and inconsequential dramatic outbursts."

While it remains to be seen if audiences will seek out the movie, I think there's enough interest in the subject and star for it to do pretty well at the box office. And I don't think DiCaprio's work can be denied. I also enjoyed Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, and he could sneak into the Supporting Actor category. But I wouldn't count on anything else--screenplay is unlikely, best picture is off. It's Leo's show, for sure.

--Jenelle Riley


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