1992, PG-13, 143 min. Directed by Richard Attenborough. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Dan Aykroyd, Geraldine Chaplin, Anthony Hopkins, Diane Lane, Penelope Ann Miller, Kevin Kline, James Woods.
REVIEWED By Louis Black, Fri., Jan. 15, 1993
A sprawling, somber biography of one of the greatest film comedians and artists ever, Chaplin is one of the most deadly serious films I've seen in a long time, thus perhaps, missing the whole point. Historically, it's a joke, crushing chronology, distorting characters, trivializing film history, but all that could be forgiven if it only had a brain, or a mind, or a heart. But it really doesn't have any. I once read a review that said Cliff Robertson played the young John F. Kennedy in PT 109 as though he knew he'd be elected president one day; Downey plays Chaplin as though he just can't get over the impending tragedy of his decline, even from the beginning, over four decades away – a tone which seriously screws up the biography of a comic genius. Chaplin conquered the world, representing the American immigrant and the great masses of the world without power and respect, and won through his astonishing physical grace and indomitable spirit. Everyone loved him, from the masses to the intelligentsia and back. Just a cut-out of Chaplin, without even a title, could pack theatres all over the world. But it wasn't just that he was a great comic and a cinematic innovator, he was one of his generation's leading intellectuals and an almost ideological symbol. Yet he was also one of the funniest men alive. Attenborough's Chaplin, wanders in the wrong direction, somberly exploring two major themes: Chaplin's affection for underage girls (he married two of them) and his wars with the government that resulted in his being denied permission to return to the United States when he left to visit Europe in the Fifties. The film occurs as told to a fictional editor of Chaplin's My Autobiography, which desperately needs an editor and fact-checking, and upon which this movie is based (with Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson). Only when Kline's Douglas Fairbanks or Lane's Paulette Goddard are on screen does it catch fire. Despite a brilliant effort from Downey, he misses not just the stylized fluidity of Chaplin but the electrifying presence of the man, and I've only seen films of him. This film wanders and dallies and much of it is fun to watch, but you really know about as much about Chaplin when you leave the theatre as when you enter, and what's missing is the magic.