By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 4, 2011 at 9:42AM
This week has finally seen some of the awards season's last big question marks unspool, with early (although vaguely unofficial) screenings of "War Horse" and "Young Adult" taking place (the latter has been conducting a series of pop-up showings around the country). And perhaps the most intriguing, at least because of the degree to which the cards have been held close to the chest, is this year's AFI Festival opener, Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar." The veteran actor/director is coming off a patchy recent run, with last year's "Hereafter" arguably his worst ever directorial effort, and the film had remained unscreened for anybody, despite opening next Wednesday.
Was keeping the film locked up a case of Warner Bros. knowing they had something of a stinker on their hands? Or an attempt to control the narrative for a strong piece of work? As it turns out, somewhere in between. Reactions are piling in from last night's premiere, and no one's really called it an out-and-out disaster, but no one's really raving either, and critics seem to be divided on the picture's Oscar chances.
On the more positive side of the spectrum is Todd McCarthy at The Hollywood Reporter, who labels it " a complex drama," saying that "the emotional dynamics given all the social and political factors at play, feel entirely plausible." He praises Leonardo DiCaprio's performance as the much-feared F.B.I. boss as "vigorous, capable," while acknowledging that Dustin Lance Black's script leaves its protagonist as something of an enigma.
McCarthy's colleague Scott Feinberg weighed in positively as well, calling it "a very good film... just plain better than the vast majority of films that get made these days," but suggests that it was met with "respectful applause," likely signifying poorly for its Best Picture chances. He does however, think the tea leaves bode well for DiCaprio, saying he "would be very surprised if... DiCaprio doesn't make it into the best actor field," calling it "a performance of great nuance, portraying Hoover as a spry 24-year-old and a fading 77-year-old -- to say nothing of the 53 years in-between -- with equal aplomb. His physical transformation is remarkable (and not only because of the outstanding makeup work), as are the ways in which he conveys his character's mental hardening as he witnesses, learns, and fears more and more."
Others, however, are more mixed. Mike Goodridge at Screen Daily calls it "a murky muddle," with a first hour that is "problematic and somewhat turgid," but also says that the film picks up when it focuses on the character's relationships (the critic writes "as always, when Eastwood turns his compassionate eye onto the frailties and emotions of his characters, the film flies and reminds us why he remains one of the world’s most vital filmmakers"). In its depiction of a gay relationship at such a high level of government, DiCaprio again is praised as giving "a bravura performance," while his co-star Armie Hammer, who plays Hoover's right-hand-man, and possible lover, Clyde Tolson, also gets the thumbs up, playing the part with "superb sensitivity."
Variety are cooler still, with critic Peter Debruge again suggesting that DiCaprio was perfect casting, writing that, "The thesp draws auds...into the character... there's an innate kindliness to DiCaprio that makes for a more likable protagonist than Hoover as the tempestuous monster so many biographers describe." However, he suggests that that spin is factually inaccurate, calls the film "dry" and criticizes the director for using too much restraint, opening by saying "any movie in which the longtime FBI honcho features as the central character must supply some insight into what made him tick, or suffer from the reality that the Bureau's exploits were far more interesting than the bureaucrat who ran it -- a dilemma that 'J. Edgar' never rises above."
Oscar-watcher Kris Tapley of HitFix's In Contention is torn saying, "There are things to admire. There are things that are maddening," again criticizing Lance Black's screenplay for being "clunky and labored," and suggesting, like Variety, that Eastwood's politics make him more sympathetic to his protagonist than he deserves. However, he too suggests that Hammer might be worth watching in the Best Supporting Actor category, calling him "pretty solid," and doesn't just suggest that DiCaprio is likely a nominee for Best Actor, but could even win, calling the star "exceptional...digging into an incredibly complex character, committing from frame one to the embodiment and maintaining that course without losing focus."
And it's also possible that there are harsher words on the way, looking at what Ice Cube would call the Twittersphere. Film Stage/Film School Rejects writer Jack Giroux tweeted that the actor gives an "unsubtle performance in a weak movie," and that the "audience was laughing at him." Veteran Oscar-watcher David Poland, meanwhile, micro-blogged that "No one is winning an Oscar. Some that were assumed nominated could be left out by all but the Globes. Painfully simplistic" (although some would argue on Poland's past prognostication form that this means that the film will sweep the board, although in fairness, he's more on the money at this stage of the process than he is months out). Finally, filmmaker Nick Robinson tweeted wryly "Jedgar sure was on time and under budget! Clint Eastwood has done it again. #successfulonhisterms."
Despite the slightly differing reactions, it seems that something close to a consensus is emerging, at least in terms of the film's Oscar chances -- Best Picture is a stretch, DiCaprio's likely to be nominated for Best Actor, Armie Hammer could sneak in for Supporting, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench (as Hoover's secretary and mother) can pretty much be counted out, and the film's a strong front-runner for the Make Up award. "J. Edgar" hits theaters next Wednesday, November 9th, and we'll have our own review soon.