From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1992), though this version of the capsule is corrected and slightly tweaked from the original. 2013 postscript: Last year, while preparing to teach a brief course about Chaplin in Brazil, I wound up reading the first good Chaplin biography I’ve encountered so far (as well as one of the shortest), published fairly recently — Stephen M. Weissman’s Chaplin: A Life (2008). Even though it’s written by a psychiatrist, which made me suspicious at first, Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine liked it enough to write an Introduction, and it’s easy to see why. I highly recommend it. — J.R.
Given the decision to cram as much as possible of Charlie Chaplin’s 88 years into one Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, Cry Freedom) blockbuster, it’s no surprise that this packaged tour through the great man’s career is unenlightening and obfuscating, despite an adept lead performance by Robert Downey Jr. Hard put to explain how the world’s most beloved individual could have been hounded out of this country and barred from re-entry, the movie can only invent a personal grudge on the part of J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), letting everyone else off the hook; it also omits Monsieur Verdoux (perhaps Chaplin’s greatest achievement) entirely from its chronology. With comparably slipshod abandon, Chaplin’s own solidarity with Jews is crudely trivialized as a sentiment relating mainly to his third wife, Paulette Goddard, (Diane Lane) and his half-brother Sydney (Paul Rhys), both of them half-Jewish; more generally, the scandal-sheet aspects of Chaplin’s career are allowed to dominate while his artistry seems vague and nonspecific. Considering how unsatisfactory both Chaplin’s autobiography and David Robinson’s official biography are, the fact that the script (by William Boyd, Bryan Forbes, and William Goldman) is based on them would be problematic even if it had actually taken its sources seriously. A lot of loving care (but not much thought) went into this white elephant, and considering how fascinating a figure Chaplin is it’s never exactly boring, but your time would be much better spent looking at any of Chaplin’s pictures. With Dan Aykroyd, Geraldine Chaplin (as her own mad grandmother), Anthony Hopkins, Milla Jovovich, Moira Kelly, Kevin Kline (as Douglas Fairbanks), Penelope Ann Miller, John Thaw, Marisa Tomei, Nancy Travis, and James Woods; don’t blink or you might miss half of them (1992). (JR)