Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thoughts on Public Enemies

Public Enemies is not what I expected. As a period film, I expected beauty shots, a lavish art direction and a formulaic structure. Don't get me wrong, I love period films, but even I have to admit it's a genre that's particularly difficult to add anything new to. Leave it to Michael Mann to defy all the trappings and conventions of the genre in this 1930s crime film. I do, however, have mixed feelings about this. Allow me to elaborate.

Public Enemies concerns itself with notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his struggle against FBI agent Melvin Purvis's (Christian Bale) attempts to capture him. Along the way, Dillinger picks up a girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a coat check girl to whom he reveals "My name's John Dillinger and I rob banks" shortly after meeting. It is unfortunate that this line doesn't sum up or define him; it's everything there's to him. This is not to say Depp isn't in fine form. He gets everything he can out of Dillinger, making him at once menacing and likeably roguish. Ultimately, however, it's not enough to engage us. Paradoxically, even if Depp's performance isn't one-note, his character is much too simple to get anything out of him.

Which leads us to the other side of the equation. Bale's Melvin Purvis is an experienced, driven man who nevertheless can't seem to outwit Dillinger. He admires his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, but can't help disagreeing with him on how the FBI should operate. While Hoover wants a legion of clean-cut men to lead the nation's premier law enforcement agency, Purvis knows that's not what the job requires sometimes. Accordingly, his straight-laced demeanor gives way to a military efficiency once he's on the field. I'd like to say Bale's performance is better than Depp's and becomes the focal point of the film, but that would be a lie. We've seen Bale in finer form recently (The Dark Knight, 3:10 to Yuma), so this performance feels just a tad too listless.

Without strong enough leads to focus on, our focus turns on the supporting cast. A standout here is Marion Cotillard. This is her first role after her amazing performance in La Vie en Rose (Yes, I realize the actual, French title is La Môme, but I've always thought La Vie en Rose just sounded so much better). Her Billie is no more complex than Dillinger. Her life is boring and she feels a need to be protected, so she tags along with him. What Cotillard does beautifully are the simple things. Her interest in him on their first date, her defiance at the officer that question her when she's captured; all of these things are handled superbly by Cotillard. The role doesn't have anything more than what Dillinger's did on paper, but Cotillard's performance elevates it to something else. Perhaps because she's free of the burden placed on Dillinger's shoulders as protagonist her role works much better. After all, Depp also works the little things in his role and it doesn't end up helping him as much as it does her.

Which leaves us with the direction. The movie is entirely shot in HD, something which (coupled with the camerawork) gives it a very distinctive look. It also serves underlines Mann's attention to detail and discipline and the film's realistic angle on the 1930s. While objectively I appreciate all of this and understand the point the film tries to make, it ultimately works against it. By presenting us with nearly two-dimensional characters and an unengaging plot, the film's realism only heightens our lack of interest. The fact that the movie's runtime is over two hours also doesn't help it in this aspect. Furthermore, the film's trailer suggested an epic crime drama. Generally speaking, epics do not benefit from realism. We need dramatic flourish to make the uncinematic cinematic, and this film doesn't work in our favor here. This is not to say realism is bad, merely that we were misled by the trailer and our expectations weren't met. As I left the theater I couldn't help but wonder what else was there to it. I thought that the fact that his name was John Dillinger and he robbed banks was only the circumstance, that there would be more to it. Was there? No, there wasn't.

Le verdict: **1/2

P.S. Just for the heck of it, here's another shot of Marion Cotillard from the movie and a picture from a photo shoot for GQ she did a couple of months ago. Isn't she just gorgeous?

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