'Chaplin' may have the walk, but stumbles everywhere else

January 08, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Chaplin"

Starring Robert Downey Jr.

Directed by Sir Richard Attenborough.

Released by TriStar.

PG-13.

... **

It is sad but eloquent testimony to the dreariness of Sir Richard Attenborough's "Chaplin" that it only comes alive over the span of one 2-minute period, when the man on screen displays the grace, the vividness, the charisma, the hilarity of Charlie Chaplin. That is, of course, because he is Charle Chaplin.

Including the archival footage toward the end is a big mistake, because it shows how magical the Little Tramp could be and how unmagical "Chaplin" has been. The movie is like that other bio-stiff of the Christmas season, "Hoffa," in that it has no theory and no consistent, driving narrative. Instead, it homes in on key moments, takes up and discards characters without ever establishing them, and over-relies on the charisma of its star to carry it. But Robert Downey Jr. just isn't enough, as Jack Nicholson wasn't enough for "Hoffa."

Worst of all, the movie hopelessly infantilizes what was clearly a severe sexual dysfunction on the part of its subject. Chaplin had a nymphet complex: The older he got, the younger he preferred his lovers to be -- many of them, including his last wife (whom he married in his 50s) were in their teens. This was scandalous by the standards of the 1920s, and lo these many years later, as witness the fall from grace of Woody Allen, it is still scandalous.

Rather than addressing this, Attenborough sentimentalizes it as the most harmless of romantic displacement, though it's clear that in most cases physical consummation was reached. His argument is that Chaplin was so infatuated with a first love that he never forgot her and spent the rest of his life trying to replace her exactly. And he wasn't happy until he at last managed it. Hmmm, wasn't this how Dracula got his start?

Anyway, Attenborough expresses this affliction through the most hackneyed of conventions (Coppola used it, too, in "Dracula," come to think of it) -- having the same actress play the lost love of youth and the achieved love of maturity. Peppery little Moira Kelly, so acerbic in "The Cutting Edge," gets the unenviable double-assignment and is soon crushed under a tide of treacle.

In clumpingly standard bio-pic method, the movie lumbers through Chaplin's incredible life using the most feeble of framing devices: An old Chaplin, in Switzerland, is being interviewed by his book editor (Anthony Hopkins), which provides a bridge between scenes, a way into and out of the past. The story peeks in intermittently as the man rises from poverty-stricken obscurity to world fame as the most famous and creative of the great silent movie clowns, and then downward to exile as his politics gets him in trouble in the intolerant '50s. What stuff! But Attenborough isn't fluent or spontaneous enough as a director to make the scenes crackle with life or reality. Everything seems stilted, moribund, dead -- it's bad actors glumly hitting their marks on huge but empty sets.

One performance blasts through the museum-piece furniture and the costumes: Geraldine Chaplin is phenomenal -- beautiful, wispy, tormented, strangely unmoored in reality -- as the comic genius' mother, who spent much of her life in an asylum, ending her days in a little house in Malibu that he bought for her.

But almost nobody else feels real. Minor-league faces put in brief appearances as once famous-people. Kevin Kline is negligible as Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; Dan Aykroyd is actively irritating as Mack Sennett; and such gifted women as Marisa Tomei and Diane Lane are all but unrecognizeable as Mabel Normand and Paulette Goddard.

What's most irritating is how Sir Richard skimps on the show biz for the politics. Epochal moments in the history of world cinema -- the actual invention of the Tramp, for example, or the legendary gambit by which Chaplin edited one of his pictures on the run, while being pursued by creditors -- get brief, comic workups.

Meanwhile, Chaplin's sentimental leftism is bloated heroically as it had any real edge or meaning or represented some guts. J. Edgar Hoover and a greasy-headed minion are hauled out as cardboard bogymen. It's interesting to note how Hoover, who sponsored so many red-baiting enterprises over his dour lifetime, PTC has become exactly the villainous stereotype that he saw under every carpet, with one letter changed: He's the fed menace.

As for Downey, it must be said that he has certainly mastered a good portion of Chaplin's extraordinary grace; he's able to do the falls, a few of the more mind-blowing drunk routines, and above all the poignant little duckwalk with great brilliance. But because the script sees him as an icon first and a victim second, there's no man there for him to play; it's all imitation, glossy but lacking the one thing that Chaplin never did -- heart.

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