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Despite great talent, “Public Enemies” falls a little flat

Depp may be the best thing about Mann's unfocused letdown "Public Enemies."

Depp may be the best thing about Mann's unfocused letdown "Public Enemies."

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.

Grade: C

2009: Movies to Watch

Alas, the Oscars have come and gone. If you worship at the altar of Stephen Colbert, chances are you were not surprised by the outcome. I know I wasn’t. Check out my TV if you don’t believe me. You’ll find it refreshingly free of dents, dings, cracks and scratches. No foreign objects were harmed during The Really Big Show and, praise be to Will Scarlett O’Hara, I don’t have to make good on my promise to move to Canada. (Heath, I had your back … even though I generally don’t stick up for people dumb enough to mix Oxycontin and, you know, any other painkiller ever invented ever.)

But now I need a little something to lift me out of my post-Oscar funk. And what better way to forget about the past than charging headlong into the future? So here’s a treatise (more like a random sampling) of the 2009 movies I’m jumpier than a virgin at a prison rodeo to see:

  • Sunshine Cleaning (March 13) — Like anyone else nerdy enough to seek out IFC films, I fell in love with Amy Adams in Junebug, where I became convinced an actress who could make me love a character that cheerful and perky can do anything. She elevates any film she’s in, so imagine my excitement at the prospect of seeing her paired with the divine Emily Blunt, who stole every scene from Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. If any two actresses can pull off a comedy about two sisters who start a business cleaning up violent crime scenes, it’s these two. Sign me up.
  • The Last House on the Left (March 13) — There’s only one reason to see “Last House”: to compare it to the supremely unnerving, gripping and violent 1972 classic directed by Wes Craven. The original gets my vote as one of the most disturbing films ever made — the top spot goes, of course, to Chaos — so I have bargain-basement hopes for the remake, particularly because the most famous actor in the whole movie is Monica Potter, who’s made a career of playing vanilla characters in B movies. If it’s crap, I’m pulling for a Chernobyl-styled failure.
  • I Love You, Man (March 20) — Know how I know there’s some sort of higher power? Because Jason Segel finally gets the coveted spot as Paul Rudd’s fake best friend/wannabe best man in I Love You, Man. Finally, people are starting to see what so many of us saw from the beginning (for Segel, Freaks and Geeks; for Rudd, Clueless): Segal and Rudd are supremely gifted comedic actors who deserve to headline their own movies. Toss in Rashida Jones (who had a career before The Office, people) and I’m already whipping out my AmEx and logging on to Fandango.
  • Adventureland (March 27) — I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age movie, especially when it takes place in a theme park populated by the likes of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Adventureland, written by Greg Mottola (one of the brilliant minds behind Undeclared), is shaping up to be a kinder, gentler, more sophisticated Superbad. Newbie Jessie Eisenberg has a pleasingly naive William Miller quality about him, and I’m thrilled to see Freaks and Geeks grad Martin Starr (that’s Bill “You Cut Me Off Mid-Funk” Haverchuck for those not in the know) back. Add a Sno Cone and a bag of cotton candy and I’ll be in heaven.
  • The Soloist (April 24) — The fact that this movie has been shelved for more than a year worries me not. Why? Because this movie — about a journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) who befriends a homeless, brilliantly talented musician (Jamie Foxx) — has almost limitless potential. Downey Jr. is on fire these days, and Foxx continues to expand on the promise and skill he showed in Ray and Collateral. And, of course, don’t forget about Catherine Keener, a fine actress relegated to tiny bit parts. Color me excited.
  • Terminator Salvation (May 21) — I know what you’re thinking: Enough with the Terminator franchise already! I’d be inclined to agree, since I barely watched the original … and the one after that … and the one after that … and the one — well, you get the idea. But this Terminator stars none other than Batman himself, the profanity-spewing Mickey-Rourke-in-his-tender-years wannabe. Yes, post-Batman he’s become a prima donna, but Bale brings his all to every role he plays (did you see El Maquinista?). Hell, he reinvented Batman; I suspect he could do the same for John Connor.
  • Drag Me to Hell (May 29) — A horror movie starring a kinda-sorta-funny guy (Justin Long) and a talented but largely unfamous actress (Alison Lohman) about a supernatural curse. Does it get less original or more derivative than this? Hey, the plot description isn’t what sold me on this; it’s the fact that Sam Raimi — who had a fantastic career as a comic-horror cult filmmaker before the Spiderman series — is directing. He’s a superhero of a director, someone who can do horror and comedy and action. If Drag Me contains 1/16th of the pluck and wit that the Evil Dead films had, Raimi’s going down in my book as one of my favorite directors.
  • The Maiden Heist (May 29) — A museum heist involving: Marcia Gay Harden. Morgan Freeman. William H. Macy. Christopher Walken. Together. In. One. Movie. ‘Nuff said.
  • Public Enemies (July 1) — Gangster movies are a dime a dozen these days, thanks in part to the great but interminable American Gangster. This year’s high-promise gangster pic is Public Enemies, a story about the Feds’ attempt to bring down gangsters John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). With Depp, Christian Bale and Frenchie Marion Cotilliard in the mix, this is a recipe for greatness (Denzel, eat your heart out).
  • Funny People (July 31) — Call me crazy (it’s been suggested), but I can’t think of one good reason not to see a movie where Adam Sandler plays a dying comedian who takes a newbie (Seth Rogen) under his wing. Sandler has proven he can do subtle comedy and drama just fine. Even Rogen has his moments of levity (I still say his sex scene with Elizabeth Banks is one of the sweetest and best I’ve ever seen). The trick will be finding the right tone, pitched somewhere between Little Miss Sunshine and Reign Over Me. (Added bonus: There’s the potential to see Seth Rogen cry onscreen. Can he do it?)
  • Julie & Julia (Aug. 7) — Amy Adams and Meryl Streep in the same movie? What is this, Doubt with flatware, baking soda and a cast-iron skillet? Hardly. I’ve got huge, bursting hopes for this film about a kitchen novice (Adams) who decides to cook every recipe penned by Julia Child (Streep, natch) in her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Adams and Streep were stellar together in Doubt, so I suspect this pairing — here in a much lighter, more comic setting — will be equally fantastic. And I never turn up my nose at a movie where Stanley Tucci and Jane Lynch show up in the supporting cast. C’est magnifique.
  • Jennifer’s Body (Sept. 18) — Can a violent black comedy written by Diablo Cody about a possessed, homicidal cheerleader (Megan Fox, who’s easy on the eyes and has crack comic timing) who offs male classmates be anything other than stupendous? No, no, a thousand times no, I say! Cody’s got an ear for whip-smart dialogue, and director Karyn Kusama has assembled a great team of actors — including the snarkastic Adam Brody, Cynthia Stevenson and Allison Janney — sure to make this Heathers for the Bring It On set. Rah. Totally.
  • Sherlock Holmes (Dec. 25) — The truth: I’ve been a RDJr. groupie since Less Than Zero, so I’ll watch any movie he makes and probably rave about it (I make an exception for Only You). Because, you see, he keeps taking these larger-than-life characters — Ironman/Tony Stark, Charlie Chaplin, Col. Lincoln Osiris, Dito, Harry Lockhart — and making them flawed, vulnerable and funny. He seems perfectly cast in every part, much the same way Roger Ebert said Frances McDormand does, and it would seem elementary that he’ll do a smash-up job playing the ever-droll Sherlock Holmes. And the fact that Guy Ritchie’s directing, well, that’s just icing.