Monday, July 6, 2009

Fear of a Depp Planet

I don't know that much about famous bank robber John Dillinger. He's probably best known in modern times for the urban legend that his huge schlong is stored in the basement of the Smithsonian. When I lived in Indiana, I once had a neighbor who told me that he had to quit his job as a traveling salesman back in the 30s because he kept getting pulled over by the police due to his resemblance to John Dillinger. I also know how and when he died. To sum up, he was a bank robber with a huge penis, looked like my neighbor and died. That was all I knew before I saw Public Enemies.

Now that I've seen it, I hope that I still don't know much about Dillinger. I'd hate to think that Public Enemies was an accurate portrayal of him and his contemporaries. If the Michael Mann directed film is accurate, everybody who lived in the 1930s was a rather dull person whose behavior can only be explained by the fact that they someday wanted their life stories to be told in a movie so they behaved in a way that was most convenient for the screenwriters. For example, there is a scene where Dillinger (Johnny Depp) makes love to his girlfriend Billie Frichette (Marion Cotillard) for the first time, an encounter in which both participants remain pretty much fully clothed. I don't mean a case where the passion was so intense that they just dropped their pants and went at it, especially since the scene was decidedly devoid of passion as they mostly just laid there gritting their teeth like they were having splinters pulled from their fingers. I mean one of those stupid movie sex scenes where the filmmakers decide they don't want the stars to be naked so they keep their clothes on during sex. The only way that scene isn't stupid and distracting is if the real Dillinger said to Frichette, "Hey this may be dramatized on screen someday and I don't want the audience seeing your good stuff. Leave your lingerie on."

On paper, this must have looked like it would be a great movie. Popular stars like Johnny Depp and Christian Bale along with recent Oscar winner Marion Cotillard star in a film directed by Michael Mann about a famous and exciting historical figure. If movies were theoretical constructs instead of actual stories told on film, this would be the best movie ever. Instead it's just...bleh.

The movie opens well enough with Dillinger executing a very clever plan to break a friend of his out of a prison in Indiana. The whole event would have worked perfectly were it not for the fact that many people in prison are violent, unstable psychopaths, one of whom ends up alerting the entire prison to the jailbreak when he shoots one of the guards he's holding prisoner. Dillinger's friend who who also his mentor dies in the ensuing firefight. Dillinger, at least in the movie, is not a cold blooded killer and merely beats the guy who got his friend killed before leaving him on the side of the road for the cops to find. Dillinger and his partner, Red Hamilton, then show the audience why they were such successful bank robbers. They had a very meticulous and professional method that quickly stripped banks of their cash while minimalizing casualties unlike fellow celebrity bank robber Babyface Nelson who would go into a bank and randomly start shooting up the place. Dillinger is even regarded by some as a folk hero because he refuses to take money from the bank customers themselves.

We then meet Christian Bale's FBI agent Melvin Purvis. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), under pressure to capture Dillinger, puts Purvis in charge of capturing him after Purvis tracks down and kills another famous bank robber, Pretty Boy Floyd. Purvis shows us why the concept "Celebrity Bank Robber" died out after the Depression was over. Famous isn't something a criminal really wants to be, especially with guys like Purvis who practice very thorough investigation practices but also new scientific techniques like wire tapping, something that is extremely effective when you know who you are looking for and who that person is likely to call.

Thanks to valuable connections formed through a series of bribes, Dillinger has created a safe haven for himself in Chicago and that's where he goes to relax after his latest robbery. It's also where he meets Billie Frichette. The whole Dillinger/Frichette relationship is the best example of the movie's lack of character development. He meets Billie and very quickly reveals that he's a famous wanted criminal. She rightly gets away from him only to have Dillinger track her down at her job and immediately start making very intrusive demands on her. One of the problems with her character is that we don't really know what is was about Billie that made her then quit her job and go off with Dillinger, a man she, at the time, knows only as a dangerous criminal who barged into her life like an obnoxious stalker.

In fact, character development and motivations are generally lacking in this movie. Billie is what is known in movies as The Girl. If she wasn't there, the movie would be a huge sausage fest and no one really wants that, but it also means that she does dumb stuff like angrily rejecting Dillinger just a few minutes before they go off together for sex. It really doesn't make sense. You may be thinking, "Okay sure Mike, she's just a dumb ol' girl. Surely the dudes are all well developed characters." No. not really. We never really learn that much about Purvis. All we know about him was that he was a competent agent. Everything else about him is a mystery. Christian Bale does the best he can but he doesn't have very much to work with.

Dillinger is the most thoroughly developed character, portrayed here as a thrill seeker who probably couldn't stop himself from taking the chances he did (at one point he actually walked into the FBI's Dillinger Unit just to look around) even though he knew it was probably going to lead him to a bad end. Even with all that, his character seemed conventional. Since it was Johnny Depp playing him, I was expecting more of the quirks and mannerisms that usually make his characters unforgettable.

Public Enemies isn't a horrible movie. It has some entertainment value. Some of the action scenes were good (though even then some of them were hard to keep track of) but, in the end, I wouldn't say it was worth seeing. The best part for me was the end. As I said, I knew how Dillinger die so, when I saw that coming, I knew it was almost over and soon I'd get to go to Five Guys for burgers.

Although, as I'm sure I'll say every time I see a movie I didn't like over the next several months, it wasn't as bad as Transformers.

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