Man, you should have seen that party. Tuesday evening at the downtown Hilton, revelers celebrating the premiere of Public Enemies wore 1930s clothes and laughed and clinked cocktail glasses. Outside the fete, which benefited Film Wisconsin and Arts Wisconsin, passersby ogled beautiful vintage cars, on one of which a guy wearing spats leaned cinematically.
A little later, at Point Cinemas before the screening, the mood was giddy. Inspiring speeches were given, and audience members who'd worked as extras in the film stood for applause. The lights dimmed. There was clapping at the sight of the Universal Studios logo. After all the excitement, the buildup, the political wrangling that gripped Wisconsin, where much of Public Enemies was filmed, the movie was beginning. And 140 minutes later...
There was polite applause.
The corridor was strangely hushed as moviegoers filed out. Hushed, that is, except for one exchange I overheard. One stranger asked another, "Did you like it?" The reply: "No!"
My reaction to the film isn't quite as abruptly dismissive as that man's. There is much about it that I like, in fact, and what I like most is the performance by Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, the Indiana farmboy who, in the early 1930s, vexed law enforcement officials and became an American folk hero as he committed a spectacular series of heists.
Darkly handsome Depp is one of our most interesting Hollywood changelings, and what's remarkable about his sometimes-rabid fan cult is its sheer ecumenism. He was a teen idol in the 1980s, when he starred on 21 Jump Street and was turned into soup by Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare On Elm Street. All these years later he's still a teen idol because of his work in special-effects blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. (He also now stars in Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" theme-park ride, and it's a more compelling performance than you might expect.)
But he also retains cachet with the arugula-eating set, thanks to his fascinating performances in a series of challenging smaller films, many directed by quirkmeister Tim Burton. Depp was somber and tragic as Edward Scissorhands, obsessive and wild-eyed as Ed Wood, smug and menacing as Willy Wonka. And Depp even emerged as a plausible musical-comedy performer in Sweeney Todd, which saw him bring a rock 'n' roll singer's technique to Stephen Sondheim's tricky libretto, with satisfying results.
As it happens, Depp does a little singing during my favorite scene in Public Enemies. Dillinger has just busted out of jail and taken a couple of anxious hostages on the lam with him. In a cute if jarring gesture, he tries to ease the tension by crooning a few bars of "The Last Roundup." Someone like Dennis Hopper might have played this for menacing camp, but Dillinger really does seem to like singing the song, and his captives do seem to relax a little.
Scenes like that shed important light on why Dillinger was, and remains, an important American celebrity. Among criminals he was a charmer, a lovable scamp -- if also a violent, ruthless one. In one of the film's spectacular bank-robbery scenes, Dillinger quietly refuses, in the name of populism, to take a bank customer's money, then engages in a brutal shootout with police.
A better -- and shorter, and more vividly dramatic -- film would focus more on searing moments like those. But Public Enemies is rambling and, dare I say, a little dull. Director and writer Michael Mann, along with screenwriters Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, have not effectively distilled their source material, Bryan Burrough's book Public Enemies, a sprawling, lavishly entertaining portrait not merely of Dillinger, but of a 1930s crime wave also perpetrated by the likes of the Barker gang and Bonnie and Clyde.
True, Mann and his designers have marvelously captured the book's 1930s setting, down to the Zenith radios, the neon signs, the running boards on the cars that everyone seems to prefer riding on. And the Wisconsin locations look great, especially the scenes filmed outside the state Capitol, with the stately old Pinckney Street buildings in the background. (During one scene, I heard whispers around me as people excitedly identified tidy Columbus, Wisconsin.) But even as Mann zooms in on Dillinger, his moll Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the FBI agent pursuing them, the director preserves more of the book's epic sweep than he really needs. Thanks partly to the film's muted color palette and often dim lighting, the enormous cast of stars and extras too often is an indistinguishable parade of men in dark suits, police officials and criminals alike.
Also making the characters hard to tell apart: many performers, including Depp, uniformly spit out their sometimes cliched lines in that clipped tough-guy cadence that probably seemed hackneyed not long after James Cagney used it in 1931's The Public Enemy. True, Bale's Melvin Purvis speaks in more deliberate tones, and it's a fine, subdued performance -- though Purvis never really emerges as more than a cipher, despite ample screen time.
And there is too much action at the margins. A thread involving the increasingly anxious Chicago mobster Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) is vague. And a more crucial subplot, about the emergence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), never really gels. Crudup brings bravura fussiness to the role, which has him wrangling with legislators, feeding gossip to newspaper writers and holding quietly tense conversations on one of the many telephones covering his desk. But other than a few hurried exchanges about the federal government's expanding law-enforcement jurisdiction, it never becomes vitally clear what was at stake for Hoover.
Burrough made it perfectly clear in his book, whose subtitle is America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. Then again, Burrough had 592 pages to make it clear.