What’s Wrong with the ’90s: Chaplin

What’s Wrong With the ’90s?

And yes, one more feature is born: What’s Wrong with the ’90s. I started thinking about it when I popped in Men at Work, that somewhat enjoyable garbage man comedy with Keith David, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez for an ’80s Trash of the Week. It felt … off. And I realized why. And this minor feature came to be. There are plenty of great movies from the ’90s, but the early part of the decade embraced the smarminess born in the reaction to Reaganomics, and the movies all had to be mini Comic Relief-a-thons, where it was only okay to laugh if 10% of someone’s profits were going to help the homeless.
Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jr. made a big splash and then disappeared, perhaps because the media was more interested in Downey’s drug problems at the time. This review has been sitting around since June, waiting for me to be inspired to write more about this movie, but unfortunately it deserves to be remembered only for Downey’s performance. It really is a bit of a mess, and epitomizes that early ’90s fear of offending anybody, love of madcap nostalgia without understanding why we loved it, and so on.

It plays like a much older film, and I’m sure that’s the intention. The credits open over Downey removing the famous Tramp make-up slowly, to show us the legend of Charlie Chaplin being unmasked. The rest of the script is just as clumsy, and Downey’s performance is the real meat of the film. In the first few minutes we see young Charlie outshine his mother at a stage show, which breaks her spirit so she never sings again; this leads to eviction and the boys being sent to workhouses (England has always been rather barbaric) where Charlie evades the guards in a Keystone Kops style chase, and digs a boot out of the muck, foreshadowing the famous scene in The Gold Rush. All voiced over by George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins) as he works with Chaplin on his autobiography.

We don’t see Downey’s excellent performance until 18 minutes in, when his brother gets him a job doing slapstick in a burlesque show. And finally, the film draws us in. Most memorable is Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks, falling from grace as former partner Mary Pickford becomes the richest woman in America; less appealing are sloppy subplots where Chaplin insults J. Edgar Hoover, inspiring the man’s vendetta against him, Charlie saying that talkies “will never catch on” while he and Fairbanks play on the Hollywood(land) sign, his first divorce inspiring his first hit The Kid with Jackie Cooper. The movie lingers on his young skirt-chasing habits, and Milla Jovovich plays one of them in an early role.
The film is really a big mess held together by Downey’s excellent performance and that of several supporting players. The bookends of Charlie dictating his biography, leaving out things he feels are uninteresting, is simply bad screenwriting. Attenborough repeatedly mimics Chaplin’s slapstick to add some liveliness to a dreary long film where he stumbles from one underage ingenue to another, while his brother continually warns him to be a good Jew and not anger the gentiles during America’s early flirtations with fascism before WW2. It’s very episodic and seems made by committee, and never captures the sentimentality of the man’s great films. Instead, it gives us brief snippets of moments in his life that supposedly inspired his films.
I expected to love this and write a huge glowing review of an underappreciated ’90s gem, but watching made me realize why it was forgotten. It fails as an epic, and Downey’s excellent performance would have been better served in a much smaller film that didn’t re-enact Chaplin’s classics, but tried to show us the man, or concentrated on just part of his life. His influence on film and popular culture is incalculable, and his courage in spitting in Hitler’s eye and that of the Red Scare witch hunts was heroic; sure he liked young tail, but that doesn’t make him a tragic hero. This is a movie best viewed with a stack of Chaplin DVDs afterward.

To give an idea of how popular Fairbanks and Chaplin were, this is a photo of them shilling for war bonds during the Great War.


3 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with the ’90s: Chaplin

  1. This is a bright idea for a series, Tommy. I'm an '80s kid, so I can't pretend to think that Nirvana is a actually a better band than The Smiths, or that T2 is a better movie than The Terminator. Your criticism of Chaplin is dead on. The cast has to be one of the most photogenic ever assembled, but the scope just suffocates the movie to death. Alan Rudolph brought so much more vigor to Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.I wonder if this series will reveal how the political bumper stickers on the Murtaugh refrigerator ruined the Lethal Weapon sequels for ya.

  2. Oh, definitely. I won't go so far as to slam T2, but it does have some typical '90s scent marks- single parent, surrogate Dad.Lethal Weapon 2 stuck in the Apartheid message, but 3 & 4 are just intolerable for how Donner wants to make millions off of a gunplay movie and yet still stick in messages that guns are bad, except when his wacky cops blow things up with them. It's the central Hollywood hypocrisy.

  3. I have to agree. I think Chaplin the movie dropped the ball when it came to Chaplin the man. Robert Downey Jr. is great as Chaplin. The problem is that there isn't that much about the movie that is great. I do think the movie might have been better if it had just centred on one part of Chaplin's lifetime. As it was, it tried to take on too much.

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