by Alan Rapp on October 28, 2008

in Home Video

  • Title: Chaplin
  • IMDB: link

“What do we do now Charlie?”

It is impossible to discuss Chaplin without first mentioning the singular performance by Robert Downey Jr. There are many biopics where the star does a passable job and others where movie magic truly happens and the actor, to an almost eerie extent (think Jim Carey in Man on the Moon, only better), embodies the subject on film.

Downey may have failed to take home the Oscar (Anthony Hopkins, also in this film, spirited it away for his performance as a cannibal), but there is nothing here to be ashamed of.  From the recreation of Chaplin’s famous scenes to the more intimate moments far from the cinema, Downey gives us a Chaplin that lives and breathes, and a magic that makes us want to go out and buy all of the Tramp‘s films.

Although this is Downey’s film there are many performances worthy of mention starting with Geraldine Chaplin who is heartbreaking playing her real-life grandmother.  Let’s also not forget Hopkins in the role of fictional biographer, Dan Akroyd as the man who gave Chaplin his start in film, Kevin Kline as the boisterous Douglas Fairbanks, Kevin Dunn as the devious J. Edgar Hoover, and Maria Pitillo as the bitchy Mary Pickford.

And there’s the women.  Moira Kelly shines in a pair of roles, Penelope Anne Miller is smart-mouthed and sweet, Milla Jovovich is stunning, Nancy Travis is equal parts sex and madness, and Diane Lane is nothing short of a movie star as Paulette Goddard.  And I don’t want to forget Marisa Tomei in a small cameo role as a director who earns her comeuppance at the hands of Mr. Chaplin.

Richard Attenborough succeeds admirably in mixing these, and many other memorable performances (keep an eye out for David Duchovny) along with the recreated studios and locations of the time.  The film takes us on a magical journey from Chaplin’s boyhood in poverty to this shining success, his downfall and expulsion from the United States, and his eye-watering return at the Oscars after decades in exile.

I respect how the film embraces Chaplin’s blemishes as much as it celebrates his genius.  In many films of this type the effect of crunching down an artist’s life into a single film can result in little more than a greatest hits album.  Here, largely due to Downey and the rest of the cast, these moments and performances give us a look at both the man and the legend that is Charlie Chaplin.

The film isn’t without some flaws.  The later scenes of Chaplin’s life rely on some questionable make-up choices and time constraints leaves us a little unsure what happens to many of the film’s periphery characters (including Charlie’s progeny who appear and disappear at random throughout the film).

Charlie Chaplin’s impact on movies and the movie business is extraordinary and to a large extent the film does its subject proud.  Aside from simply entertaining, a job he did so well, Chaplin pushed the envelop at the times taking on taboo subjects such as politics, unrestrained nationalism and the American Government during the height of the Red Scare, which brought him almost as many enemies as fans.  It’s ironic that a man who epitomized the best of America never became a citizen and was kicked-out of the country for many of the basic rights and beliefs this country was founded on.

Those who picked up the earlier release of the film on DVD don’t need to spend any money here, but for those who haven’t seen the film or haven’t had a chance to add it to their collection you don’t want to pass up this one.  Arguably the best performance of the best actor of his generation, Chaplin is one film you want on your shelf.

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