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‘Chaplin’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 08, 1993

 


Director:
Richard Attenborough
Cast:
Robert Downey Jr.;
Dan Aykroyd;
Geraldine Chaplin;
Kevin Dunn;
Anthony Hopkins;
Milla Jovovich;
Moira Kelly;
Kevin Kline;
Diane Lane;
Penelope Ann Miller;
Paul Rhys;
John Thaw;
Marisa Tomei;
Nancy Travis;
James Woods
PG-13
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent


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Go back to approximately two years ago. Sir Richard Attenborough, yearning to reproduce the success of "Gandhi," plans another biographical biggie. "Chaplin" will recount the life of the great silent-movie legend, Charles Chaplin.

It's a tough task. The man who plays him must know pantomime, vaudeville and timing. He must have an expressive face. He must exude inner grace. He must be Chaplin. After auditioning countless performers, known and unknown, Sir Richard chooses . . . Robert Downey Jr.

Excuse me? You mean the stocky guy in "The Pick-Up Artist," "Air America," "Johnny Be Good," "1969" and all those other tapes at the forgotten end of the video store? True, he showed talent in "Less Than Zero," "True Believer" and "Soapdish." But we're talking about someone to play the most balletic, inspired comedian of all time. Who was Sir Richard's second choice? Larry "Bud" Melman?

It's obviously too late. "Chaplin" the movie is now said and done. And there is Downey the Tramp, twitching his mustache, twirling his cane and speaking in a tutored cockney accent. Although he fares better than one would expect (in other words, better than Larry "Bud" Melman), this movie isn't just a foolhardy venture. It's a disinterment.

Based on Chaplin's factually airbrushed "My Autobiography" and David Robinson's "Chaplin: His Life and Art," the movie gives you a little bit of everything and, therefore, nothing. It starts with his early days in England, including Chaplin's famous childhood memory of his stage debut. After his mother is booed off the vaudeville stage, 5-year-old Charlie (played by Hugh Downer) chirrups his way through a stage number and receives a shower of appreciative pennies.

The story then hops from high point to high point, and from celebrity to celebrity. You'll meet show-meister Fred Karno (John Thaw), who gives Chaplin his first break; Chaplin's brother Sydney (Paul Rhys); and Keystone Kops founder Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd). In between, you'll learn little about the real man, nor feel anything for him.

After Chaplin becomes an overnight success, the underaged women will kick in, including Mildred Harris (Milla Jovovich), Paulette Godard (Diane Lane) and Oona O'Neill (Moira Kelly), Chaplin's fourth and final wife. It amounts to a beauty parade of the semi-talented, with little information about the relationships Chaplin had with them.

"Did you lose your other wives this way?" asks Godard, in a moment of estrangement.

"I think so," says Chaplin. "But you'd have to ask them."

While Chaplin makes movies, hangs out with buddy Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline) and chases little women, another celebrity looms menacingly: J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn). After a dinner with Hoover, in which Chaplin makes light of the FBI tyrant's communist paranoia, Chaplin's dark future is set.

Scriptwriting luminaries Bryan Forbes, William Goldman and William Boyd scrupulously avoid the exciting, whether biographically insightful or plain lurid. Worst of all, they rarely let Chaplin be Chaplin. In a film like this, surely you want to see the man at work, directing, practicing, pratfalling, doing the things that made him Chaplin. You want to see how he created those incredible scenes in "Modern Times," "The Circus," "The Gold Rush," "One A.M." and so forth.

Not in this movie. Despite all the publicity about Downey's prowess, you're privy to a mere handful of comic performances. Downey's greatest success in this category comes early in the movie, when he plays (pre-famous) Chaplin doing a vaudeville drunk act. But he's soon to undo it when he meets Sennett for the first time.

When Sennett, who has not seen his face before, demands Chaplin prove who he is, the performer goes into an impromptu slapstickish routine. The laughing Sennett recognizes the real McCoy and another Legendary Moment is supposed to have occurred. The trouble is, Downey's Chaplin comes across as terribly amateurish. This Sennett should have said, "Naah, you're not Chaplin. Get outta here!"

The movie indulges in a rather stale flashback procedure, in which Chaplin and his editor (Anthony Hopkins) discuss the octogenarian's soon-to-be-published autobiography. Each of these discussions prompts an appropriate journey into the past. But this recurrent scene merely attests to the combined difficulties of making a movie about Chaplin and convincingly disguising Downey as an old man.

Speaking of real McCoys, the best thing about this movie is Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of the real-life comedian, who plays her own grandmother (i.e. Charles Chaplin's mother) with tremendous presence. When she's on screen, a disconcerting realness invades everything. You realize that, if someone wanted to save this project, they'd be wise to scrap everything in the movie except her.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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