Fine performances by Downey and others don't fill void in 'Chaplin'

August 20, 1993|By Scott Hettrick | Scott Hettrick,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

CHAPLIN

(Live, $94.98, rated PG-13) 1992

First and foremost, Robert Downey Jr. does an incredible job of capturing the mannerisms, the speech and the physical appearance of Charlie Chaplin. His best-actor Academy Award nomination was richly deserved.

And we're not talking about simply impersonating the Little Tramp character that was introduced to a new generation by an actor in the IBM commercials of the 1980s (though Downey is even so good with that aspect that viewers will not notice the difference between him and the actual film clips of Chaplin that are seamlessly interwoven).

Downey portrays the British vaudevillian turned silent-film star from a young man through his famous appearance at the Academy Awards as an elderly, white-haired gent who walked slowly and bore almost no resemblance to the persona whose worldwide fame was unprecedented.

Directed by Richard Attenborough, who gave us "Gandhi," this film also has many of the elements of an epic biography of a man who was larger than life, including seemingly dozens of memorable performances by minor characters, including brilliant ones by Dan Aykroyd (as movie-maker Mack Sennett, who discovered Chaplin), Kevin Kline (Chaplin's best friend in Hollywood, fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks), Milla Jovovich (his first, 16-year-old, wife), Diane Lane (his co-star and wife, Paulette Goddard) and Paul Rhys (Chaplin's older brother and manager).

In two fascinating bits of casting, Chaplin's real-life daughter, actress Geraldine Chaplin, plays his mentally disturbed mother, and Moira Kelly plays both his first love, a young British chorus girl, and Oona O'Neill, the last of his many wives.

The narrative device, having Chaplin answer questions about his life to the book editor (Anthony Hopkins) of his autobiography, is unusual and feels a little clumsy and contrived at first.

Although it would be difficult to complain about any aspect of the 2 1/2 hour film, there is an overall feeling at its conclusion that we still don't know as much about Chaplin as we had hoped or expected to learn. Rather than focus on a single element of Chaplin's life, the film gives a rather cursory overview. For instance, the film fails to give any sense of Chaplin's creative process on the movie set, about which entire books have been written. And, although his left-wing political views are given attention here, they leave one yearning for more. For those interested in personal affairs, the depiction of his revolving-door marriages is almost comical in its brevity.

While Downey is still in his prime, perhaps Attenborough should consider shooting these additional elements for a possible special-edition release on video and/or a TV miniseries.

MAD DOG AND GLORY

(MCA/Universal, priced for rental, rated R) 1993

Time was when each new movie starring Robert De Niro was a major event, simply because De Niro created such extraordinary and powerful characters, mostly with director Martin Scorsese.

But in recent years De Niro has appeared in a series of rather ordinary movies, portraying rather ordinary characters. "Mad Dog and Glory" is no exception.

As ordinary movies go, this one is above average and notable if only because De Niro plays a squeaky-clean celibate while Bill Murray is also cast against type with his gangster character.

De Niro's police photographer, Wayne Dobie (nicknamed Mad Dog), spends his nights taking pictures of crime scenes and his days lamenting his dormant social life as he watches a naked couple embrace in front of their window across from his apartment.

Shortly after, he saves a stranger's life during a convenience-store robbery one night and is invited by him to his comedy club where the proprietor is performing badly. Turns out the proprietor is a local gangster/loan shark named Frank Milo. ,, Milo, a likable sort, feels he needs to show his gratitude to Dobie in some tangible way. But Dobie politely declines for fear his peers would misinterpret his relationship with the criminal.

The next day a rather nervous woman named Glory (Uma Thurman) shows up at Dobie's door, informing him that she is to be his companion for a week, courtesy of Mr. Milo. Realizing it will be easier to accept the "gift" than try to return it, Dobie reluctantly agrees, but promises no sexual conduct.

Of course, Dobie and the woman, who has become a human repayment for her brother's debt to Milo, soon fall in love, which causes a problem with Milo at the end of the week.

The strength of the film lies in Murray's portrayal of Milo as a good-hearted small-time hood without an ounce of scruples and an ego the size of Manhattan. But where another actor would have used the opportunity to create a despicable and violent psychopath, Murray manages to keep audiences aware of the potential volatility of Milo while simultaneously injecting him with humanity.

Particularly noteworthy here is the performance of David Caruso as Dobie's friend and partner, who sees to it that he is always around to fight Dobie's fights for him.

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