Our rating: 2 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Prior to renting this film I knew nothing about Charlie Chaplin, but by the end had come to see him as a man of tremendous talent, incredible work ethics, and more than a few moral flaws.
There comes a time in every extraordinary man's life when he decides to write a biography. Charlie Chaplin (Robert Downey Jr.) has reached that point and his editor (Anthony Hopkins) wants to go over some of the more "hazy" aspects of his book. His unfortunate childhood, the madness into which his mother (Geraldine Chaplin) descends, the loss of his first love, and of course the dramatic move to America from the British stage that brought him fame and fortune. Young Charlie is an unknown in Hollywood and his arrival coincides with the development of "flickers" (moving pictures). Captivated by the slapstick comedy that has audiences roaring from one coast to the next, Charlie invents a hobo character and is an immediate international success. Soon he is the most well-known entertainer in the industry, competing at parties with the likes of Mary Pickford (Maria Pitillo) and his dear friend, Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline).
But there's one thing Charlie cannot seem to get right: his relationships with women -- much younger women who raise eyebrows and draw attention to him as a libertine. One man in particular is waiting for him to make a mistake -- J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), whom Chaplin disagreed with at a public event and now considers him a potential enemy of Freedom. But what the man does not realize is that Charlie loves America so much that he has become unpopular overseas and when he sees violations of freedoms, he will not remain silent... even if it means in his older years that he refuses to "tow the line" and associate with Hollywood Nazis. The result is a moving portrait of a man who is flawed but likable, characteristic of the immoral attitudes of his time but courageous in his attempts to use his influence for good. I had no idea he was accused of communism, no idea that he snubbed a German Nazi film producer in public at a Hollywood gathering, no idea that some of his sketches were far more heart wrenching and powerful than simply funny.
In pure terms of filmmaking, this is a marvelous piece of work with genuine creativity in the writing and lovely production values. It grants the audience a rare look into what Hollywood was like entering into the early 1920's and how certain trends were already settling into place -- in terms of morality, belief systems, and indeed, how ambitious everyone was. There are some wonderful comedic moments that make you feel as if Chaplin would approve of this representation of his life, because in a way his creation of the hobo is a parallel to his own life -- his arrival in America, the difficulties he encounters there, and his sad past. The cast is also tremendous -- Robert Downey Jr. received a much-deserved Oscar nomination for his performance, and it's truly superb. There is not a moment of the real Chaplin in the film -- every sketch, every expression, every black and white image flickering in the background, has been painstakingly recreated. It goes beyond impersonation to sheer magnificence, assisted by a host of terrific thespians at the top of their game. Diane Lane, Milla Jovovich, and Moira Kelly are among the talented women who play his wives and lovers. The latter is particularly likable in the second half, playing the love of his life.
Stunning costumes however cannot make up for the lack of morality -- I'm surprised they could get away with so much nudity for the rating, since we see most of the female cast members topless sooner or later -- in an early scene, Charlie pops into the ladies' dressing room at the theater and sees a number of topless girls putting on makeup and rushing about; our introduction to the woman he loves is her unintentionally flashing her breasts at him; later, Charlie is interested in a sixteen year old girl at a party -- we see her preparing to sleep with him, the top of her garment slips down and shows off her breast -- she then removes her clothing and the camera catches her nude from behind; later with another lover/wife, after an off-screen encounter she turns over in bed and we see her breasts; there is some sexual innuendo and discussion about Charlie bedding underage girls. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks are known to be having an adulterous affair. Violence is kept to slapstick amusements, but there are several abuses of Jesus' name, two uses of GD, and two f-words.
More conservative viewers may cringe when hearing a few anti-conservative statements and the series is quite harsh on J. Edgar Hoover. There is also a tremendous breach of judicial conduct in a lawsuit late in the film, which proves that politics can sometimes influence the outcomes of trials. Ultimately, I found it very enjoyable and it made me want to watch more of Chaplin's original work -- but at the same time, I feel the story could have been told just as well without exploiting its leading ladies.