Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Movie Review: Public Enemies

Folks, I'm as straight as they come. I absolutely adore my gay friends and neighbors. I just don't swing that way. Nonetheless, that Johnny Depp has got something going on. Aside from being an enormously talented actor, the man has got to be the single-most welcome individual at any university sorority house. (Just ask Maty, she'll tell you...) So, sure, go ahead and put me down as a Johnny Depp fan.

And I'm a sucker for a gangster flick, too. Whatever mutated virus resides at the base of American nerve cells, causing us to be fascinated with movies about organized crime and unsavory sociopathic criminal personalities, I've got it.

So, I was chomping at the bit to see Michael Mann's latest effort, Public Enemies. Maty and I went on Sunday.

The film depicts the last days of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), a Depression-era bank-robber who, according to director/writer Mann, was basically a good-hearted tough guy, just trying to make a more or less honest living by sticking it to "the man." The film follows Dillinger as he goes from bank to bank, hiding amid a public that admires him, living according to his ethos, and falling in love with coat-check girl Billie Frechett (played by Marion Cotillard). Pitted against him is Special Agent Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale), the FBI's rising star.

I found the camera work in the flick to be quite good. Dante Spinotti, the cinematographer, did an excellent job of capturing the light in each scene in such a way that it sets the mood, presages what is to come. For example, at the race track, as Dillinger and Billie are contemplating their prospects as lovers, a golden glow permeates the scene and viewers sense that the moment they are witnessing is probably the pinnacle of the two lovers' happiness; it can only get worse from here.

The acting was solid but not spectacular. I was particularly disappointed with the scene that came midway through, wherein Dillinger and Purvis meet. One had the feeling that both actors were willing to have a good run at it, but that director Mann, for some reason, failed to recognize the potential and held them in check. I had not seen Marion Cotillard before and I very much enjoyed her performance. And, besides Johnny Depp, who could breath life into any role, Stephen Graham turned in a good performance as Baby Face Nelson.

All in all, the movie didn't quite deliver on my expectations. I'm willing to allow some artistic license in defining the main character who, rather than a fair-minded hero of the people, was probably more likely just a murderous thug. But I really felt that the movie strayed a little too far into the realm of nostalgia. The Depression wasn't really such a great time, you know? There was desperation. There was hardship. Mann doesn't really touch on that.

But the biggest failing of the film, I think, is that it lacks a theme. It poses no questions for viewers to consider; Mann almost seems determined to avoid anything that might be construed as a challenge to his audience. None of the characters grew or changed. It was as if Mann created a set and then set them loose in it, to stumble about predictably like so many wind-up dolls.

I didn't leave the theater thinking about the flick. By the time the credits started rolling my mind was already on the drive home.

Don't get me wrong. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than to watch Public Enemies. But as far as gangster flicks go, this ain't no Godfather, no Good Fellas, no Sopranos Season 5.

Adequate. That's how I describe it. This film is adequate.

1 comment:

Shawna said...

Hi Dade,

You should check out Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (aka La Mome) - she won the best actress Oscar for it.