Going into this, I had seen only with thing about Richard Attenborough’s biopic of Charlie Chaplin: it was too shallow, focused little on his art and turned Chaplin into a borderline sex offender. Well, I thought at first this was unfair. I mean, Robert Downey Jr was nominated for an Oscar due to this film. Can it be that bad?
Well, here I am to give you my assessment: it’s too shallow, focuses little on his art and turns Chaplin into a borderline sex offender. Yep. The majority was completely correct.
Basically a filmed version of Chaplin’s autobiography, it has a reporter (played by Anthony Hopkins and not based upon anyone who actually existed) tracking an aging Chaplin down in Switzerland to “fill in gaps” he feels Chaplin left out of said autobiography. So, Chaplin explains everything from a miserable childhood to a start in vaudeville to traveling to Hollywood and becoming the biggest icon in the world.
And frankly, that is where the film goes wrong. Chaplin was the biggest icon in the world. He was, truly, the first real movie star. His memorabilia pretty much invented that sort of tie in that now every blockbuster does. His techniques revolutionized cinema forever. And, for some reason, all of this isn’t worth anything to Richard Attenborough.
Nope, he is far more content with showing Chaplin chasing jailbait (a phrase that is actually used in the film) and being chased by J. Edgar Hoover for supposedly being a Communist. First off, the film tries desperately to format Chaplin’s life to be more cinematic and does it aggressively so. Nothing is made about J. Edgar Hoover’s overall obsession with celebrity and his attempts to fight Hollywood himself. Here, J. Edgar Hoover was merely offended by Chaplin at a dinner party once, and well…that was it.
Another thing. The story of his wives. Well, frankly, this is what the emphasis is, but there is seriously no story. Judging by how much she was on screen, Paulette Goddard was married to Chaplin for five minutes at most. And this was his muse and the leading lady in what was perhaps was his best film (I’ve always had a soft spot for Modern Times.) But nothing is made of this.
And frankly, Downey’s performance may be one of the biggest cons in cinematic history. Why? Because it really is that good. But this film doesn’t really deserve a good performance. Downey captures all of Chaplin’s mannerisms, his accents, his looks. He was perfectly cast into an imperfect script. Frankly, despite how wonderful it is, I am glad he didn’t win. It would have given legitimacy to this entire enterprise.
I would like to refer to Ed Wood, another biopic about an entirely different filmmaker. With that, the subject was a virtual unknown except to those who love delicious ors dourves frequently found in the garbage can. Equal time was given to all subject matter, from Wood’s work to his love life to his relationship with Bela Lugosi. By the end of the film, we truly felt we had gotten to know Ed Wood.
Not so here. I left no wiser about the work and thought process of Chaplin. I certainly left knowing who he wanted to sleep with. Richard Attenborough forgot the biggest thing. To make a biopic, you have to show the audience why you found the subject so interesting to begin with. You cannot, should not, ever depend on the subjects’ reputation.