J. Edgar: written by Dustin Lance Black; directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Leonardo Di Caprio (J. Edgar Hoover), Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolson), Judi Dench (Annie Hoover) and Naomi Watts (Helen Gandy) (2011): There’s a good movie locked up inside this movie. That movie would be a period piece about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and its status as the first great event of the Celebrity Age. When J. Edgar focuses on that story, as told by J. Edgar Hoover, things are good, albeit historically inaccurate.
Unfortunately, we’re also stuck with the increasingly exhausting frame tale, in which Hoover recounts the early history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to a succession of FBI agents over the course of a decade. Leonardo Di Caprio is fine as Hoover, but the longer we stay in the frame tale, the more we see how astonishingly lousy is the age make-up on Di Caprio and Armie Hammer (The Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, and Hoover’s longtime companion Clyde Tolson here).
Seriously. This movie has the most jarringly bad age make-up I’ve seen in years. That the movie apparently takes place in an alternate universe in which men and women age at vastly different rates doesn’t help things — Naomi Watts gets a few wrinkles added over the course of 30 years while Hoover turns into the Grinch.
But it’s Hammer’s make-up that steals the show. Because the Hammer of the late 1960’s doesn’t really look human — he looks like one of the alien lizard people from Alien Nation. It’s ridiculous. The tedium of the frame tale (which really takes up half the movie and thus doesn’t really constitute a frame) gets force-multiplied by the inaccuracies that even a cursory glance through Wikepedia (or a passing knowledge of American history) will reveal.
In the end, this is something of a disappointment, especially after the excellence of Eastwood’s last period drama, The Changeling. As if to hide as much of the awful make-up as possible, Eastwood keeps the lights low for long stretches of the movie. It’s a game try. Not recommended.