Thursday, July 30, 2009

A life less lucid

As far as biopics go, Public Enemies was a bust. I didn't really learn much about the life of John Dillinger, nor did I get an appreciation of the allure of the infamous 1930s bank robber who fascinated the public and frustrated law enforcement for years. The film played out like a hastily sewn patchwork quilt: incoherent snatches of jailbreaks, bank heists, shootouts, and press cons given by J. Edgar Hoover, fabulously portrayed by a gorgeous Billy Crudup.

Indeed, the movie's sole strength was solid acting: when Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard topbill, very little can go wrong by way of dramatic performance. Depp is flawless as always, lending Dillinger an air of quiet danger, easy arrogance, and sexy charm, with just a vestige of vulnerability. I still maintain Depp is the most brilliant actor of our time, and like a stunning photograph, it doesn't matter how ugly the frame, your eyes are riveted on the beauty in the center. On the other hand, Christian "Crimefighter with Chiseled Cheekbones" Bale gave a more subdued turn as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent tasked by Hoover to take down Dillinger and his gang. So subdued was his delivery that there were times when I'd actually forget Bale was even in the movie, but whenever he showed up in a scene, he was all smoldering intensity, a la Bruce Wayne/John Connor. Marion Cotillard, whom I adored in last year's La Vie En Rose, was magnifique as Billie Frechette, Dillinger's lady love. All the best scenes in the film were those shared by Depp and Cotillard, as the two made the renegade romance between Dillinger and Frechette come alive with a flirty, fiery passion.

With the exception of the 3 leads (and Billy Crudup's Hoover), the rest of the characters passed in and out in a blur of fedoras, trench coats and machine guns. I couldn't keep all the names and faces straight, and gave up trying half an hour into the movie. There wasn't much of a plot to keep track of, though; the thing with biopics is, everyone knows how they end anyway, so it's only a question of whether or not the story was presented in a creative, entertaining way (never mind the historical inaccuracies). Public Enemies was compelling in parts, but lacked the artistry of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the clarity of Milk, and the showbiz touch of Walk the Line. Because ultimately, that's what a biopic should be, not just a well-acted ensemble piece, but a well-drawn portrait of a life more extraordinary than most. John Dillinger deserved better.


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