Take Robert Downey Jr. out of the equation, and Chaplin remains a handsomely produced old school biopic. Focus on its star, and the 1998 film achieves a gravitas that lends greatness to it. A sweeping overview of Charlie Chaplin?s momentous and scandal-ridden life would present any filmmaker with daunting challenges. Director Richard Attenborough does his workmanlike best, hitting all the major spots in a rags-to-riches-to-exile-to vindication story as fantastic as any movie made in the land that Chaplin himself put on the map. Inclusion has its price — exposition clogs the screen; dialogue often acts more like a biographical road map than human conversation. No matter. What Attenborough has in his favor saves the day: an obvious affection for his subject, albeit one that?s clear-eyed enough to recognize the near-Shakespearian flaws of this titan of the screen, as well as the extraordinary performance he extracts from his lead actor. While he nails Chaplin?s inimitable comic persona and physical routines down cold, Downey?s remarkable emphatic talents truly reveal themselves when portraying Chaplin out of cinematic character. Downey embodies the torment of the neurotic man behind the comedic mask, burdened by familial guilt, passion for underage females, and gnawing perfectionism. As lithe as he is demonstrating the famed pratfalls, Downey comes most alive as Chaplin ages, capturing the blend of pride and evasiveness that the elderly exile used as emotional armor in his later life. To grant both figures — past and present — their due, Downey?s is a performance that his revered subject deserves.
About the Author
Steve Futterman writes the "Jazz and Standards" listings for The New Yorker.