If The Academy feels froggy this year and decides to create a “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” category, it’s fair to say that Michael Mann’s overlong, disappointing gangster shoot-‘em-up/biopic “Public Enemies” has the Oscar all sewn up.
Why? That’s a tough nut to crack, since all the elements for success are firmly in place: a strong — if unconcerned with this “historical accuracy” business — director; beautiful cinematography; one hell of a leading man (call him a kook, but Johnny Depp rarely disappoints); and a top-of-the-line supporting cast (including Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and the always-surly Christian Bale).
And yet. Somehow all these elements can’t gel into the great movie “Public Enemies” surely ought to be. It’s a case of all all pomp and no circumstance. By the time the credits roll, all we’re left with is the particular brand of letdown that comes when you invest 150 minutes in a movie that is merely pretty good, not great.
The fault lies somewhere, alright, but not with Depp, who possesses an unerring instinct for doing the opposite of what moviegoers expect. He plays it cool and collected as John Dillinger, an Indiana-born bank robber who spent the sorriest, hardest parts of the 1930s emptying bank vaults and becoming something of a national hero in the process. Dillinger isn’t the sort of criminal who waxes philosophical about his crime; he’s a doer, not a thinker, who sees what he wants and figures out how to get in the quickest, smartest way possible. This philosophy colors all parts of his life, including his attraction to Billie Lechette (Cotillard), whom Dillinger plucks from a dull life checking coats. “We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow,” he tells Billie, and she thinks that sounds like a nice alternative to her barely-scraping-by reality of $3 dresses.
The couple’s fun starts skidding on the tracks, though, when J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who sees a chance to turn his Bureau of Investigation into a bigger, more powerful national organization, charges dogged lawman Melvin Purvis (Bale, whose “I’m intensely devoted to my craft” act is growing very old) with catching Dillinger, who’s become Public Enemy No. 1. And Purvis, single-minded to the point of pointless violence and recklessness, is a man who doesn’t like to come back empty-handed.
But let’s dispense with all talk of plot. That’s not really what “Public Enemies” is about. Frankly, it’s not clear what Mann wants his movie to be. He tries for pared-down historical biopic a la “Walk the Line.” Not quite. Mann distorts so many facts that the story becomes unforgivably sloppy. Is it a love story, then? Hardly. Cotillard and Depp have chemistry, but it certainly doesn’t make Dillinger and Frechette’s strange, codependent relationship endearing. “Public Enemies” has some success as a straightforward gangster movie, with impressive gunfights filmed in high definition. The HD work, indeed, is a plus, giving the movie vibrant colors that pop off the screen and fabric textures that look very impressive.
And yet. It all winds back to the “and yet.” The look doesn’t matter so much when the little else lines up. Depp turns in a fine, fiercely understated performance that gives nothing away. He refuses to make Dillinger into some kind of glib, vagabond philosopher, or explain his motives. It’s the kind of shrewd, unshowy work that merits a second look and maybe — given the recent changes to Oscar’s Best Picture policy — a little critical praise. Not so with Cotillard, whose character is woefully underdeveloped. She’s too good an actress to get saddled with a part that requires this little effort. The same goes for Bale’s Purvis. As little as we get about Dillinger, we get even less about Purvis. And Bale plays him as he plays everyone these days: a tight-lipped, grim, “mysterious” lone wolf. Maybe “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” inflated his Bale’s ego exponentially. Who knows? The point is that where he once dove headlong into a character, he now squints and mumbles and plays himself playing someone else. He’s as good an actor as his generation has, but he knows it and he’s trying to coast by on his reputation. It’s not working anymore.
But maybe we’re on to something here. Maybe what’s happened with “Public Enemies” is nothing more than the Christian Bale Syndrome. Mann got too cocky with the mount and dismount to worry about the follow-through. He counted on fancy camerawork and his resume to see him through, and it didn’t.