Friday, July 03, 2009

PUBLIC ENEMIES

No, not the Republican Party, although Christian Bale does a witty impression of George W. Bush as Melvin Purvis, the G-man assigned to solve the Dillinger Problem.  It is kind of a clever idea, as Mann's film shows Purvis as borderline incompetent, but, like the rest of Mann's film, it is a clever idea that ultimately doesn't really add up to much.

Johnny Depp's work as John Dillinger is carefully observed if a bit remote, somehow.  I just never really felt that I got enough of a sense of what makes him tick, or rather, I never got the feeling that what made him tick was interesting enough to carry a full length film.  I could never quite shake my knowledge that Dillinger is, ultimately, just a criminal who finally winds up getting what is coming to him.

I'm finding it hard to find things to say about the film.  I've seldom been so underwhelmed by a big event film.  PUBLIC ENEMIES isn't bad, by any means.  There are some memorable moments, like Depp's first glimpse of his future girlfriend, played by the glorious Marion Cotillard, from across a crowded restaurant.  Their courtship is exciting and moving: they're the most interesting screen couple in a while.  Billy Crudup has some good fun as a fussy J. Edgar Hoover, and Bale's Purvis, as noted, is an amusing riff on George W. Bush.  

I think ultimately the film just wanders around too much.  I appreciated the economy with which it was established that Dillinger is among the last of a dying breed: solo bank robbers are on the way out, replaced by the big business of the Syndicate who make as much money all day every day as Dillinger makes in one single robbery, without the attendant gunplay and hostage taking.  If the rest of Dillinger's career and his pursuit by the (strangely ineffective) law enforcement forces had been handled as well the film would almost certainly have been a good 45 minutes shorter.  

I lost interest, and started to think about other movies.  Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE manages to establish the economic ugliness of the Great Depression, and Hill's BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID generates genuine human interest in its characters in ways that PUBLIC ENEMIES simply never does.  PUBLIC ENEMIES borrows liberally from both film (Dillinger tells a bank customer to keep his money, as Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow does, and Cotillard has a line about not wanting to watch Depp die that echoes a moment between Katharine Ross' Etta Place and the Sundance Kid).  I'd say that if PUBLIC ENEMIES had focused exclusively on one or the other side of the law, it might have amounted to something.  As it is, it just kind of peters out.

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