How does a moviemaker reinvent the man who reinvented the movies? Richard Attenborough, brave soul, throws all his daring and affection into this daunting task, and a bit of foolishness, too. Attenborough's ambitious biopic Chaplin will never be mistaken for Citizen Kane (or for Gandhi), but it's no W.C. Fields and Me either: This uneven effort may give us the great comedian Charlie Chaplin in disorderly pieces, but it captures something of his passion, invention and questing spirit, too. Let's hope new acquaintances of "the only genius developed in motion pictures," as George Bernard Shaw once called him, now learn more through The Kid, City Lights, Modern Times and the rest of the Chaplin canon.
Measured by sheer verbiage, at least, Chaplin's has become one of the most thoroughly examined lives of this century. His army of biographers disagree about everything from his birthplace (London? Or was it Paris?) to his tightness with a buck and the size of his artistic debts to Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, Max Linder or a dozen others. Starry-eyed film students ingest Charlie's every utterance, and French scholars find in his sublime comedies grand philosophical constructs only they could imagine. The Little Tramp has been scrutinized as minutely as any king, yet much about him remains mysterious.
Limited by 150 minutes of screen time, Attenborough can but fire a shotgun at his complex subject and hope to hit something.
The life unfolds in shadowy flickers -- Little Charlie's Dickensian childhood in the slums of London, his hard apprenticeship in vaudeville, the subsequent tours of America with Fred Karno's troupe and the young man's almost accidental rise to fame and glory amid the ferment of the early movie industry. Attenborough has some fun mimicking slapstick styles here and there, and major figures of the silent screen flash before our eyes, then vanish -- blustering Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd), dashing Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline), contrary Mabel Normand (Marisa Tomei), smart, stand-up gal Paulette Goddard (Diane Lane). Tormentor J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn) pops up, rather too conveniently, as a guest at a glamorous Hollywood table. Charlie, fiddling with the dinner rolls a la The Gold Rush, tweaks the odious G-man's self-importance, and from this slight, we're falsely led to believe, Hoover undertook his decades-long campaign of personal harassment, based on what he imagined to be Chaplin's pinko sympathies and his well-documented taste for young girls. So it's bonus time: We get a cram course in political ideology along with our fly-by semester of movie history. We also get one of filmdom's most bizarre Freudian twists: Charlie Chaplin's daughter Geraldine impersonates her own insane grandmother Hannah with such verve and credibility that you wonder how the family gene pool is holding up these days.
If our heads continually spin from Attenborough's rush of narrative, the extraordinary young actor Robert Downey, Jr. always brings us solidly back to the man. He uncannily resembles the offscreen Chaplin, to be sure, his evolving accents are impeccable, and he reproduces the poignant charm of the Tramp's splay-footed walk with the best of them. But there's more than gifted mimicry here: Behind those liquid eyes we sense the troubled spirit that created the artist, and Downey obliquely reveals the progress of Chaplin's work, from the 34 shorts he made for Sennett in 1914 to his great feature films of the Twenties and his legendary resistance to talkies in the 1930s.
He even manages to turn the clunkiest device of the film's four screenwriters to his advantage: As the ancient Chaplin reveals details of his life to a fictional editor played by Anthony Hopkins, Downey's wintry septuagenarian, living in Swiss exile in the 1960s, everywhere suggests the depth of personal tragedy at the core of the Little Tramp's brave, manic assaults against bourgeois authority, impossible odds or immovable objects. At every age, in every light, Downey proves equal to a nearly impossible challenge.
Meanwhile, some Chaplin fanatics are bound to protest loudly. For one thing, Attenborough casually passes over the later works -- Limelight, Monsieur Verdoux and A King in New York -- with barely a mention. For another, he shortchanges a complex emotional life through a fictionalized Victorian cliche: Jilted in adolescence by a London chorus girl, it says here, Charlie vainly searched for her double all his life, finally succeeding with young Oona O'Neill. Attenborough underscores the point by casting Moira Kelly in both roles. Nice and neat.
Downey is wonderful in Chaplin, and it ably recalls the exuberance of a new art form in the making, through the eyes of its most inventive practitioner. But the inadequacies of this noble effort are most glaring in the last reel, when Attenborough at last tantalizes us with some glimpses of Chaplin's actual work. No re-creation of the man and his world -- no matter how vivid -- quite matches up to the real McCoy, and we walk out into the lobby yearning for more. Happily, the city lights of the video outlet are burning brightly.