Thursday, July 9, 2009

Squalor: Public Enemies

In theory, Public Enemies has all the makings of a fantastic film: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) play cops and robbers in Depression era, gangland Chicago.  Release it in the summer and you're almost guaranteed a runaway success. Action and drama, gangsters and molls, Johnny freakin' Depp;  seasoned actors with blockbuster draw.  The studio should be able to rake in the cash and possibly nab a few nominations. That is, in theory.

In execution, Michael Mann's technically elegant recasting of reality is a pale imitation of both the real thing, and crime saga cinema in general. This is no Bonnie and Clyde. It's not The Untouchables and it's not Miller's Crossing.  Instead, it's a scattered epic draped in illusion, and if you take a moment to reflect on what you've seen, you'll realize the illusion ain't so hot. In attempting to tell the cat and mouse story of notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Depp) and his relentless FBI pursuer Melvin Purvis (Bale), the film shirks character and connection in favor of expertly spaced bursts of machine gunfire.  What I mean to say is: there is no tension, just a device to ensure you stay awake.  Purvis pursues, Dillinger jumps around in a way that seems blissfully ignorant of any potential plots against his existence.  Purvis pursues, we get one or two droll attempts at charisma from Dillenger.  We don't see Purvis suffer over the task at hand. We don't see him anguish. We don't see him break his bureau-boy cool demeanor... not really. Same goes for Dillinger. He's stagnant. No neurosis, no sparkle, little in the way of suggesting a thought process beneath his slick exterior.
I'm not saying Johnny Depp doesn't do what he can. He does. While Bale turns in a remarkably wooden, second-rate performance, Depp is the bright spot in an otherwise bleak film.  Unfortunately, the film wins.  Its confines don't allow the unsinkable Mr. Depp to take Dillinger and truly make him a dimensional character. There are brief moments, a scene in which he insists Cotillard's character ditch her dead end job and leave with him, or when he's meeting the press post-arrest, in which we are allowed to see the potentially charismatic Robin Hood Dillinger could have been. These instances are quickly stifled by a combination of underdeveloped script, Mann's editing, and an unceasing forward motion towards the inevitable, and notorious (at least if you live in Chicago) back alley end.  Let's just come out and say it, with a 143-minute run time, Public Enemies spends about 10 of those minutes developing its characters. The rest is devoted to dramatic strains of emptiness and hollow, tedious action.  The first Transformers film spent more time trying to get the viewer to care about the plight of poor little Sam Witwicky, and that's not saying much.

With Michael Mann at the helm and a fantastic character actor like Depp in the primary role, this film should have been an easy A. Alas, it feels like a stripped down, artistically forced version of a much more interesting story. Underdeveloped personas, underdeveloped narrative arc, underdeveloped central conflict. In case you were wondering: Depp and Bale interact exactly once. I'm not asking for a Catch Me if You Can mind game scenario, because i think it's fair to keep it a little more on the historically accurate side, but I simply can't fathom how this movie was made without someone suggesting Mann add some flair and establish the "interactions" through the day to day movements of each character.  This is an intensely dramatic story with an inherently interesting psychological undercurrent.  That Mann misses completely.

I've heard it told that the beauty of Public Enemies is that it does not conform to the glamorization of the crime epic.  Instead of building a Hollywood gangland, Mann attempts to play it straight and thus, keep it real.  It seems to me there's something admirable about this, but ultimately, if this was something Mann was going for, he falls flat on this as well.  The Dillinger mythos has captured the Chicago imagination for generations.  This film is enough to kill it.  Though Dillinger may not have been, in actuality, a wisecracking Cagney figure, he was still the object of media fascination, and a genuine life goal for Melvin Purvis.  Purvis was driven insane in his manhunt.  He committed suicide at age 56 and prone to rash outbursts himself.  While his life points to a man driven by obsession, Bale's Purvis is stagnant.  There's nothing to him but a man in shadow who pursues without any hint of his own involvement or psychological entanglement.  The evidence points to the contrary, but Mann seems too hesitant to take liberties.   Ultimately, if nothing else, Public Enemies has convinced me that it might not be worth filming historically based crime films if you're not willing to construct characters beyond the information in their Wikipedia biographies.  Films need characters, not flat names, dates, and figures.

Public Enemies, to use a tired simile, is a dead shark that keeps swimming. The film has no momentum, but goddamn it if it's not going to reach the finish line anyway. Be forewarned: there were parts where i found myself on the verge of a deep slumber, which is not something I'm particularly prone to (seriously, i'm one of the sorts who can watch Assassination of Jesse James... and be at the edge of her seat), especially when Johnny Depp is on the screen.  While there are things to see here -the reverted Chicago landscape, for example- there isn't much.  If you're not too hung up on actually wanting to care about what's going on on screen, you might enjoy Public Enemies as a superficial, well-manicured period piece.  Just...don't go in with high expectations.  A tremendous disappointment.

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