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Jan 21, 2012 at 09:05am IST

Masand: 'J Edgar' a surprisingly dull biopic

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts

Director: Clint Eastwood

Regarded as one of the most controversial figures in recent US history, the late 'J Edgar' Hoover gets shortchanged with a surprisingly dull biopic from director Clint Eastwood, who appears to have come up with a new cure for insomnia with this deathly boring epic.

'J Edgar' stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, but the actor plays him with a distracting clipped accent, his face often buried under layers of unconvincing old-age makeup. It's an earnest performance by a committed actor. But DiCaprio's take on Hoover, who spent roughly 40 years as Director of the FBI, doesn't have the same spark as his portrayal of Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator.

The blame for that must be shared with Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) whose self-serious script employs that familiar structure of an important man looking back on his life. In this case, it's Hoover in his seventies, as he dictates his memoirs, prompting a series of flashbacks to key moments of his life. He details his rise through the Department of Justice to head the newly created FBI, his crusades against gangsters, Communists and radicals, and his manipulations of politicians through his extensive collection of secret files on every powerful person in DC.

Eastwood's film, however, merely scratches the surface of Hoover's professional achievements and transgressions, choosing instead to focus on his relationships…with his domineering mother (Judi Dench), his lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and with his second-in-command at the FBI – and his lover – Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Anyone looking for greater insight into Hoover's personality, or his evolution as a political force will have to look elsewhere.

It doesn't help that the story unfolds as a series of confusing flashbacks within flashbacks, and the secondary players are delivering impressions rather than performances. The sad truth is that more effort appears to have been spent designing the period look and feel for this story than on character development and narrative. As a result, 'J Edgar' feels like a half-baked meal, a disappointment from one of modern cinema's great master filmmakers.

I'm going with a generous two out of five for Clint Eastwood's 'J Edgar'. Watch it for DiCaprio's earnest performance; watch it also to see how an opportunity has been lost.

Rating: 2 / 5

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