No one could possibly have fathomed that someone as handsome as Leonardo DiCaprio and someone as homely as Ernest Borgnine would ever play the same character, but the actors indeed share the same screen DNA by both having portrayed J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial Federal Bureau of Investigation director and one of the most powerful figures of the 20th century.
Borgnine is just one of the many actors to have essayed the role in past productions (mostly on television), but it's clear that DiCaprio's turn at-bat will be the new measuring stick, mainly for being at the center of Clint Eastwood's major new film, J. Edgar. DiCaprio's performance is interesting, respectable, measured, unfussy and just a touch dry, qualities he shares with the ambitious picture surrounding him. It's always hard to encapsulate an entire life in one running time, but Eastwood and scripter Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for penning the excellent Milk) give it a shot -- make that scattershot.
Saddled with a worthless framing device in which an elderly Hoover recounts his career for the biographers, the film moves back and forth through different eras to show Hoover's start at the Bureau of Investigation in 1919 (the "Federal" was added in 1935) right up through his death in 1972. Many of the watermarks surrounding Hoover and his G-Men are included, albeit accorded different measures of importance: The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby is given ample screen time, as is the Bureau's pursuit of notorious 1930s gangsters.
But his persecution of radicals and civil rights groups -- his real legacy, as far as many people are concerned -- never truly takes center stage (Martin Luther King is mentioned, but hardly a whisper is uttered about the Black Panthers), and several career blunders are sidestepped in order to present a fair and balanced portrait. But the same problem affects J. Edgar that affected Oliver Stone's Nixon and W.: We aren't dealing with fair and balanced individuals, and the bending over backwards in an attempt to muster tears -- even crocodile tears -- is an unfortunate decision.
As for the personal aspects of Hoover's life, the rumors that he was a closeted homosexual who entered into a lifelong companionship with fellow FBI suit Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, less dynamic here than as The Social Network's Winklevoss twins) were never substantiated, so Black is forced to make up his own history; the focus, for better or worse, renders this less a comprehensive biopic, more a Brokeback Bureau.
JACK AND JILL
Less than 48 hours before I embarked on the courageous journey to attend the screening of Jack and Jill, a co-worker offered his theory that Adam Sandler deliberately makes movies out of the stupidest ideas he can conjure, simply to prove that his fans will see him in anything. I stated that the comedian's next film will be Diarrhea Man, about a guy who spends his entire life sitting on a toilet making flatulent sounds, and the fact that my colleague couldn't tell whether I was joking or not says everything anyone needs to know about the cesspool of cinema known as the Adam Sandler Oeuvre.
Jack and Jill certainly ranks near the very bottom; it's stupid and infantile, of course, but it's also lazy and contemptuous, a clear sign that Sandler and director Dennis Dugan (his seventh Sandler film; stop him before he kills again!) aren't even trying anymore, safe in the knowledge that audiences will emulate Divine in John Waters' Pink Flamingos and chow down on whatever dog doo is presented to him.
Here, the stench is particularly potent, as this story about an obnoxious ad man (Sandler) and his whiny, overbearing sister (Sandler in drag) is a nonstop parade of scatological bits, prominent product placements, faux-hip cameos (Johnny Depp, welcome to the halls of whoredom), wink-wink chauvinism, racism and xenophobia, icky incest gags, annoying voices (not just Sandler as Jill but also the made-up language spoken by the siblings), and the usual small roles for Sandler's beer buddies (including, groan, David Spade in drag).
Al Pacino co-stars as himself, inexplicably smitten with Jill; he provides the film's only two or three chuckles (especially a line about the Oscars), but even long before the sequence in which he raps about doughnuts, it's clear that he's become an even bigger sellout than Robert De Niro. Now that's saying something.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
Make all the Mary-Kate and Ashley jokes you want, but don't diss Elizabeth Olsen. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, the younger sister of the Olsen twins delivers a breakthrough performance that will remind many of Josie Lawrence's excellent work last year in the similarly unsettling (though clearly superior) Winter's Bone.
Olsen stars as Martha, who's long been under the thumb of a cult leader (John Hawkes, even more menacing here than in the aforementioned Bone) but finally works up the nerve to escape. She goes to stay with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulsen) and Lucy's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), but since she's reluctant to talk about her experiences, the couple grow increasingly impatient with her odd behavior and violent outbursts.
T. Sean Durkin, making his feature-film debut as both writer and director, establishes a chilling mood in the fascinating flashback scenes detailing Martha's life in the cult community, but it's the prickly turns by Olsen and Paulsen that save the family sequences, which make up the less interesting and more frustrating part of the film. The ambiguous ending will be loved by many, loathed by an equal amount; I feel there were better ways to conclude the story, but I understand that it comes with the art-house territory.