Film Score: Thomas Newman Cinematography: Jean Lépine
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Geraldine Chaplin, Anthony Hopkins and Moira Kelly
Chaplin is a difficult film to judge. For one thing, it suffers from the time period in which it was made, still feeling of the eighties--if not the seventies--in it’s basic esthetic. The color can be a little washed out, as those films were sometimes. There’s nothing of the digital color manipulation we have now to really evoke the past in a visceral way. Then, too, Robert Downey Jr. is impossibly young and having to portray one of the most iconic and studied actors in film history was never going to be completely successful. As for the rest of the acting, it too suffers from something of a TV movie sensibility when seen today, an almost Love Boat-esque quality with people like Dan Aykroyd, David Duchovny and especially Geraldine Chaplin in the cast. In the end, however, it’s what we have. Like criminals at trial, very few subjects of biopics return to the screen in something better.
The conceit of the film is that it is the reminiscences of the later Chaplin’s discussions with his editor, Anthony Hopkins, about his memoirs. He begins in childhood, filling in for his mother onstage when she’s booed off. Next he finds success in vaudeville, but is forced to put his mother in a mental institution. When he goes off to America with the troupe he is made an offer by Mack Sennett and goes to Hollywood where he works his way up from performer to director to star. Along the way he meets women, young women, but marries them all which prevents him from charges of statutory rape. The film's primary conflict seems to hinge on the insulting remarks he makes to J. Edgar Hoover in the twenties, resulting in a life-long enmity that eventually results in Chaplin’s expulsion from the United States and exile in Switzerland.
The filmmakers made a wise choice in severely limiting Downey’s attempts at mimicking Chaplin onscreen, and even show Chaplin himself in the films that are screened. One only has to think of the utterly improbable James Cagney attempting to do Lon Chaney to know how disastrous that would have been. The problem, though, is that it forces the film to focus on the soap opera aspects of his personal life--something most biopics do--and loses the flavor of being anything like the complete story the viewer might have expected. Downey tries valiantly in the early scenes to evoke something like the humor that Chaplin possessed, but he doesn’t have it. He wouldn’t find his métier until much later in the Sherlock Holmes films. Again, he’s not helped by the supporting cast, either. A who’s who of Hollywood at the time is trotted across the screen and really only serves to sever any kind of suspension of disbelief in the process.
Sir Richard Attenborough, who won two Oscars for Ghandi in 1982, doesn’t seem to have really grown in the ten years since. He directed a string of good films early on, but beginning with Chaplin his work has been of decidedly low quality ever since. One of the disastrous choices he makes in the film is during the editing of The Kid, Chaplin’s first feature. He was in the process of divorcing his first wife and wound up having to take the film to Nevada to finish editing in order to avoid having the film seized as part of his assets. Attenborough chooses to film the episode like a faux silent film which, instead of paying homage to silent comedy, comes off more like an episode of The Monkees. It’s actually embarrassing to watch. Ultimately the audience will have to choose what it wants to get out of the film and endure the rest. But Chaplin is still more realistic than The Man of a Thousand Faces or The Buster Keaton Story . . . just barely.