If you've ever wanted to watch Dirty Harry murder Jack Dawson, J. Edgar is your movie. Director Clint Eastwood smothers Leonardo DiCaprio under makeup and padding right before your eyes. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black presses the actor's mouth shut, allowing this movie's version of J. Edgar Hoover to exhale self-justifying speeches without taking in new air. DiCaprio's eyes — clouded by colored contacts and further dimmed by cinematographer Tom Stern's suffocating desaturation — flash warnings, signs of a panicked intelligence. Is that the paranoid FBI Caesar in there, or is it a relaxed feline performer recognizing too late that he's stuck in a stiff dog of a movie?
Eastwood's dour J. Edgar sits across the law-and-order aisle from Michael Mann's pushy but no less self-conscious Public Enemies. In both melodramas, wardrobe and CGI evoke an alluring, stylized nostalgia. But it's a longing not for the eras they depict but for the rough-and-tumble studio pictures concurrent to them. (J. Edgar marches from the 1920s all the way up to Nixon but changes its look only marginally along the way.) When DiCaprio's Hoover addresses a movie audience from a newsreel that dissolves into a preview of James Cagney in The Public Enemy, Eastwood is answering Mann, in whose movie Johnny Depp's Dillinger watches a similar short that instructs the crowd to look around the theater for lurking villains. That's as alive as things get here, though.
Black's screenplay confines its subjects within that hoariest of biopic structures, the speculative flashback. But not speculative enough; shown as younger men, DiCaprio and Armie Hammer (as Clyde Tolson, Hoover's confidant, who would have made a better lens for this material) radiate prettiness and irony, not longing. In scenes of their later years, each actor glumly vulcanized, the movie becomes an unwelcome hybrid of The Sunshine Boys and Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County. The sight of DiCaprio, Hammer and Naomi Watts pantomiming through heavy latex stirs pity for the actors more than sympathy for the conflicted figures in their care. It's enough to make you long for Oliver Stone.