A successful biopic will memorialize its subject, both good and bad, maintaining drama and interest in all of its acts, leaving the audience touched and informed by the time the curtain falls. It can remind fans of what they loved in someone, and be a stirring tribute, by the actor involved in recreating a famous someone, and by all those whose efforts for accuracy helped make the film possible. Most importantly, it can introduce new fans to people they might otherwise be unfamiliar with, and spark a passion and interest that can last a lifetime.
'Chaplin' isn't the best biopic out there...in fact, more recent offerings like the Johnny Cash tribute 'Walk the Line,' Tim Burton's 'Ed Wood,' Scorcese's 'The Aviator,' or even the Jim Carrey-starred 'Man on the Moon' trump Richard Attenborough's 1992 film chronicling the life of silent film legend Charlie Chaplin. Still, there's something special about 'Chaplin,' even if it isn't as moving or cohesive as its counterparts, largely due to the Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated performance by Robert Downey Jr.
This is not a rose-tinted tale of a misunderstood man. Based on Chaplin's 1964 biography and David Robinson's 1985 book, 'Chaplin' tells the story of Charlie's life, touching briefly on his childhood, and focusing heavily on his films, his rise told in a behind the scenes manner, as well as his troubled love life and the controversies that would mire his reputation. The story is capped off with a video montage for his honorary lifetime achievement Oscar, as Chaplin is shown reminiscing over his storied, legendary, unrivaled career.
I'll get any griping out of the way early. I want to praise this film, and the efforts behind it, but I cannot get past one glaring error in the film: the entire narrative. Biopics told in flashback, that's not all that uncommon. It's cliche, sure, but it works. It doesn't work, though, when the "present" is constantly cut back to, as we are not given a distinct timeline, the story is constantly interrupted, apparently so Anthony Hopkins, in a fictional role, can get some screen time. I get the entire idea that the discussions concerning the writing of the book are what spawn what we see, but that's just hackneyed writing, a really lazy, unnecessary contrivance that is more a distraction than it is an effective gimmick. It doesn't help that the makeup effects for a not-yet 30 year old Downey Jr. are about a tenth as convincing as the makeup effects that turned the actor into a black man not even twenty years later in 'Tropic Thunder.' In fact, the makeup effects are an eyesore throughout the film, as is the quickly peppered and whitened hairstyle adorning an actor playing a role simply outside his age range. And don't get me started on how some of the women in the film don't even age a day, despite being shown over a lengthy period of time.
I hope no one takes my observation of Downey playing outside his age range as an insult to his performance. I actually cannot begin to sing enough praises for the mimicry of the great Chaplin found within this film...I just cannot "buy" the way age is played in the film. He's definitely not a Benjamin Button in reverse, that's for sure. Downey Jr. is simply marvelous in his turn as the tramp, and it's simply impossible to not fall for it, to believe at some points that you're watching Chaplin himself. That is acting.
'Chaplin' isn't just a wonderful look at a brilliant man, it's an exquisite look at the burgeoning days of Hollywoodland, the early studio system, and the politics of filmmaking, as well as the scandals and debauchery that defined numerous careers. While I have no problem admitting that I adore the also-Chaplin featured retelling of an individual story in Peter Bogdanovich's 'The Cat's Meow' (a supposedly true tale that isn't even mentioned in this flick), there is plenty for film fans to find worth watching here, even if they have never seen a single bit of Chaplin. Simply put, you don't have to be a fan of the man to be greatly entertained here.
'Chaplin' features an all star cast (including Milla Jovovich, Dan Akroyd, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Kline, Diane Lane, Kevin Dunn, James Woods, Geraldine Chaplin as her own grandmother, and Moira Kelly, playing two parts with astonishing believability, which also gives the film a wonderful full-circle twist), and an all star sense of humor amidst its seriousness. Sure, I could complain until the cows come home about the manner in which the story is told, but I will say that with a different outlook, this is a film that could have been one of the all time greats in its genre. This biopic will turn the unaware into instant fans, and there's absolutely everything right with that.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Lionsgate brings 'Chaplin' to Blu-ray on a Region A/B/C BD50 dic, housed in a cut-out eco-case with no other packaging frills. The cover indicates this being a "15th Anniversary Edition," but that number doesn't quite add up, especially not when there was a DVD release in 2008 with that same name. Hooray for math!
There is a load of trailers that have to be skipped individually ('The Doors,' 'Apocalypse Now,' 'Buried,' 'Rabbit Hole,' and 'Biutiful') upon disc start-up, while the menu for the film is static, with a very short audio loop. It has to be noted that there are two typos on the back of the package: first, the time for the film is not 135 minutes, rather, 145, according to my player. Secondly, in the tech specs, they call this "1080p high definition." If anything, they should call it a "sloppy lazy port without a new restoration." I mean, damn!
Yeah, that above knock at the video qualities on this release was serious. Lionsgate dumps 'Chaplin' on Blu-ray with a 1.78:1 framed AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1080p that is so sloppy that it belongs in the StudioCanal Collection of titles, so that this mediocre work could be priced higher. I mean, I think that's how that works...
From the opening scenes, you know you're in trouble. There's a hefty amount of dirt and debris, as well as some super thick edge enhancement that is impossible to miss. The dirt and edge work both are random throughout the film, sometimes spiking dramatically, but dirt definitely is the winner of the competition between the two as to what can be more distracting. The picture is shaky, sometimes wobbly, with questionable delineation, inconsistent contrast, a picture that's often flat, dull, muted colors, random softness, and some wonderful little flickers that make the film feel about as inconsistent as Chaplin's well being throughout. Textures are hit or miss, with some very fine, believable moments, and others that are about as realistic and natural as Downey's old age makeup. I heard this one was bad, but I wasn't ready for it to be this bad. There's a nice patch in the middle of the film that's much better than the score here would indicate, but it's bookended by some serious butt ugliness.
Not faring much better is the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix that sounds cheap and shrill. The stereo mix lacks power, then gains a set of cojones, before losing them for a while, and finding them again. It's like hide and go seek. Sometimes, when the film wants to be confident sounding, considering the uneven volume levels that leave more than a few lines somewhat indiscernible, the result is a blunt, harsh sound. I didn't expect much here, so I'm not disappointed. I do think this is a waste, and it could have sounded much, much better, though.
'Chaplin' isn't a perfect film, nor is it among the top biopics ever made. It is, however, the home of one of the best biopic acting performances out there. Robert Downey Jr. is a fantastic Charlie Chaplin, and watching him recreate the classic, most memorable scenes (as not a single frame of the real Chaplin is in the film) is a real pleasure. This Blu-ray release is far from perfect, with very troubled video, average but underwhelming audio, and a small lump of extras. I'd love to recommend this release, but I just can't do it. Just check it out, maybe Netflix it.