Nov. 9, 2011 at 9:35 AM ET
Start with the question everyone asks: Yes, at one point in "J. Edgar," Leonardo DiCaprio as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover does put on a dress.
But it's hardly the flamboyant cross-dressing swashbuckle you may have expected. Here he's mourning the death of his controlling mother (scarily played by Judi Dench, so good in everything) and dons her beads and dress in some misguided way to pull her close once again. The understated scene isn't really surprising, but it feels a little like director Clint Eastwood threw it in as a sap to viewers who may know little more about Hoover and expect to see the rumor addressed.
Indeed, it's hard to walk into "J. Edgar" without expectations. Hoover's life is fascinating, juicy stuff and Eastwood and DiCaprio are A-list Hollywooders. If anyone can tackle this topic, they can. Yet there's more than one movie roiling under the surface here, and sometimes you wish Eastwood and DiCaprio would just pick one and run with it. "Hoover and the Lindbergh Baby," perhaps, or "Hoover and His Secret Files." The film throws in all those wannabe films and underlies them all with "Hoover Is Probably Gay But Will Stay In The Closet Until Someone Rips The Doors Off."
DiCaprio, 36, portrays Hoover from age 24 to his death at age 77, bobbing and weaving through decades and major events in the director's life. The excuse for doing so is Hoover dictating his memoirs to various handsome young agents. But the shifts can be jumpy, and returning to the room with another new typist slows things down.
The audience gets the feeling early on that not everything Hoover is dictating is the way events actually happened, but there's no doubt it's the way he sees it. DiCaprio plays him as a man who's supremely confident in his job, but a mother-dominated possibly closeted gay man at home. Armie Hammer plays Clyde Tolson, Hoover's longtime co-worker and possible lover, and isn't it about time Hammer gets his own lead role in a movie? He's excellent here, although the old-man makeup he's slathered with for half the film is more Halloween masky than realistic. (DiCaprio's makeup job is better, but Hammer resembles a burn victim.)
The history may be touch-and-go, but DiCaprio's Hoover is well-played. His supreme confidence on the job is completely absent in his social life. In an early scene, stuttering Hoover takes co-worker Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, understated but strong) to the Library of Congress on a date. It's not exactly "Taxi Driver's" Travis Bickle taking his date to a sex film, but it's almost as awkward.
In the context of Hoover's personality, though, it makes sense — he's more comfortable showing off how quickly he can find a book from the card catalog than he is dancing or flirting. Throughout the entire film, he never gains that social confidence, and it helps explain why he's so desperate to keep the upper hand, threatening presidents and other leaders with the reveal of their secrets.
Here's hoping no high-school students try and use "J. Edgar" to write a history paper on the man, because they'll get a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and their teachers will be wearing out their red pens urging them to outline their material. But it's still a thoughtful and intriguing offering from two of the most talented men working in film today.
Do you have any interest in seeing "J. Edgar"? What do you think of the casting of DiCaprio in the role? Tell us in the comments.