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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 08, 1993


Richard Attenborough
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
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Old-fashioned, overblown and unduly reverential, Richard Attenborough's "Chaplin" might as well be "Gandhi Gone Hollywood." It's a monumental biopic that cheapens the hero's successes by glossing over the failures that surely also shaped the man.

A ruthlessly evenhanded director, Attenborough turns the silent screen star's life into a TV-movie mush of short-lived marriages and celebrity-packed premieres. The character may age from 5-year-old vaudevillian to octogenarian Oscar-winner, but he never really changes, except for the thickness of his pancake makeup.

Drawn from Chaplin's "My Autobiography" and David Robinson's "Chaplin: His Life and Art," the film opens on the comedian's Dickensian childhood in Victorian England. Charlie, played with heart and bowler hat by Robert Downey Jr., is the precocious son of a broken-down music hall singer (tenderly played by Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie and Oona O'Neill). After committing his mother to a mental asylum, Charlie joins a noted vaudeville troupe and is discovered across the Atlantic by producer-director Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd).

In short order, Charlie creates the Little Tramp, marries a little tramp (Lolita-lishious Milla Jovovich), makes millions, alienates J. Edgar Hoover and befriends Dougie Fairbanks (Kevin Kline). There are four marriages, a paternity suit, fights with his brother Sydney (Paul Rhys), cocktails and tennis with Doug, but Chaplin's notoriously obsessive work habits receive short shrift in the grindingly chronological script. For that, wait for a rerun of PBS's "American Masters," which included a fascinating episode on Chaplin's artistry (though he was never a U.S. citizen). There are scenes in "Chaplin" in which he runs his hands through his hair while perfecting the score of "The Great Dictator," but nothing of the elaborate preparations that went into his seemingly magical performances.

Only the flimsiest links exist between the artist's experiences and the laughter he draws from them. Attenborough doesn't have a clue when it comes to Chaplin's psychology, a shortcoming he fobs off on Chaplin himself, who dishes out anecdotes during a fictitious meeting with the editor of his autobiography. Played bookwormishly by Anthony Hopkins, the editor repeatedly complains about the author's bashful manuscript. "If you want to understand me, watch my movies," says Chaplin -- advice that Attenborough finally takes to heart with a series of clips that makes us laugh, a rarity in this morose undertaking. Unfortunately for Downey, the collage also makes the disparity between his earnestness and Chaplin's genius all the more evident.

Downey brings hard-won grace to his performance, but not the panache of a matinee idol nor the wistfulness of a gifted clown. There's a little of both in Kline's flamboyant Fairbanks, the dazzlingly buoyant action hero who founded United Artists with Chaplin and Mary Pickford -- not that this is ever made clear here. The film's most engaging scenes invariably feature either Aykroyd, Fairbanks or Diane Lane as Chaplin's sardonic third wife, Paulette Goddard. "I'm 21, way too old for you," she says referring to Charlie's predilection for jailbait.

"Sex, that's what turned you into an exile. Sex," observes Hopkins, who frequently interrupts the flow to provide historical footnotes -- that Pickford was America's sweetheart, for instance. Alas, Attenborough manages to make sex with a strumpet feel exactly like tea with a crumpet. Attenborough, whose direction is as stiff as his British upper lip, also has comic dyslexia. He'd look for the tragedy in a rubber chicken.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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