Chaplin - 1992
Director(s): Richard Attenborough
Writer(s): William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman (screenplay) / Diana Hawkins (story) / David Robinson and Charles Chaplin (books)
Cinematography by: Sven Nykvist
Editor(s): Anne V. Coates
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Geraldine Chaplin, Paul Rhys, Moira Kelly, Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Klein, Marisa Tomei, Milla Jovovich and Dan Aykroyd.
Synopsis: A film about the troubled and controversial life of the master comedy filmmaker (IMDB).
Before you go see Avengers Season 3 finally in the theater, come with me a revisit a time when Robert Downey Jr. tried to act like someone other than Robert Downey Jr. Look, don’t get me wrong, I love Downey as Tony Stark, but he is on autopilot at this point. Take an audio clip from an interview and an audio clip (in where he isn’t talking superhero stuff) from any of the recent movies and you can’t tell them apart. His swagger, his comedic timing and his persona is one in the same. The osmosis is complete, Downey is Stark and Stark is Downey. In Chaplin, he plays the titular role of Hollywood legend and pioneer Charlie Chaplin as we go through his humble beginnings all the way to his final days in the spotlight.
I’ll be upfront before I dive into the movie. I had never watched it prior to me picking it for my “Modern Classic” section of my website (subscribe to my free newsletter). So, I wasn’t sure it would fit my definition or parameters to what a modern classic is to me, and after watching I can say it doesn’t. The only reason I’m moving forward is Downey’s incredible performance within this deeply flawed, misguided and ingenuine biography about one of the most interesting and captivating authors of the silent film era.
Quick note: I’m a huge Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton fan and I fully recommend their movies either in full if you can find them or via clips so you can get a quick introduction to them. Trust me you will end up watching multiple movies from them after this exercise. Actually moving forward all my GIFs will be of Charlie Chaplin.
Robert Downey Jr. did a great job at capturing Chaplin’s persona behind the camera. His mannerisms and his charismatic enthusiasm for the art of movies and comedy are all in the forefront of his performance. But where he shined were the moments he inhabits the Tramp, Chaplin’s famed character that lived in all his films. The mustache, the cane, the hat and the make up all add up to the iconic character, and Downey did him justice. There are a couple of sequences where they re-created the magic of the silent film era. Hisstyle of physical comedy and situation-based gags too smart to be lumped in the slapstick comedy genre were captured a couple times and if you squint a little you couldn’t tell that it wasn’t Chaplin during those sequences.
Where this movie ultimately falters is with it’s boring biopic structure and its bewildering obsession with Chaplin’s love life. Look, I completely understand that Chaplin had a suspect love live, with many of his wives being under age. It was a different time and I agree that it’s a subject that should’ve been addressed. But the movie just failed to capture the genius this man truly was in the art of cinema. They played his career as just a vehicle to pay for his lifestyle and to get women into his bed. At no time did I understand how Charlie saw his world through the camera. Or that he was obsessed with constantly re-inventing his physical gags, trying to one up himself both in front of the camera and behind as a successful writer/director. Oh, and when they do touch on his “inspirations,” they are as trivial and superficial as they can be. He sees a man close a door and his face lights up and yells “I got it” – cut to his movie showing a door closing. Really? That’s the genius of Chaplin?
When we aren’t focusing on his sexual conquests, the movie shifts towards J. Edgar Hoover’s side-plot. Hoover was famously convinced that Chaplin was a communist and the movie just decided that this was the most interesting aspect of this man’s life. That he was a suspected communist. I was so frustrated by this movie’s lack of interest in the protagonist of the story and incomprehensible obsession with the side characters that filled up his surroundings. I’m not even mentioning the constant flash forwards to the old Chaplin talking to his fake biographer played by Anthony Hopkins. His biographer served as a vehicle to the audience but he kept asking the wrong questions.
Quick note: it’s not only the subjects touched by the filmmakers that bothers me, it’s also the execution. The constant voice over narration, the clear voice over for lines that weren’t picked up during filming and the over use of swipes and fade in and outs that become as annoying as a rock in your shoe.
Chaplin is a frustrating movie if you are a fan of Chaplin, and an incomplete, misguided introduction for anyone that doesn’t know of him. If you want to know Chaplin, watch one of his 87 movies. I would start with The Kid or Modern Times or The Gold Rush and anything in between. If you want to get some context of the man behind the camera there are a few great books written on the man. While Robert Downey Jr. earned his Oscar nomination, his performance gets lost in a tiresome, formulaic and uninspired biopic that lets down its lead and its subject matter. Charles Chaplin is why I love movies.
Chaplin is currently playing on Amazon Prime. Go watch a Chaplin movie instead.
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