The magnitude of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (not to mention Guy Richie’s big screen Sherlock Holmes) has overshadowed Robert Downey Jr.’s previous work, and his incredible acting ability has been hidden underneath CGI suits and elaborate action spectacles. Many in his repertoire should be forgotten (Two Girls and a Guy, Friends and Lovers, and anything else from ’96-‘99), and he’s probably thankful the history of drug addiction is no longer at the forefront of conversation, but the roles that won him respect and accolades seemed to have faded into the background as well. Less Than Zero was the first to get him noticed and taken seriously; Chaplin was the one that earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
The movie is framed with Charlie Chaplin (Downey) answering biographer George Hayden’s (Anthony Hopkins) questions to fill in the gaps of his soon-to-be-released autobiography. It briskly runs through the man’s long and eventful life, beginning in squalor and vaudeville with an older brother and mentally-ill mother, and moving on through his beginnings in and later dominance of silent film. Between the comedian’s career highs and famous figures of the ’20s and ’30s moving in and out of the story, the film displays some of Chaplin’s notorious lows; namely, his attraction to very young (often teenage) women/girls and the disastrous and tragic results of those various unions.
The true test as to whether or not a biopic is any good lies in the lead’s performance; the movie hinges on the ability of the actor to completely embody that role, and Downey knocks it out of the park. He intensely studied Chaplin’s movements prior to production, and enlisted the help of coach to assist during shooting. The actor fully embodies the greatest physical comedian of all time, which is no small feat. Downey manages to pull off the defining feature of Chaplin’s onscreen style, the use of a dancer’s grace and finesse for slapstick gags, while lending emotional realism to the off-screen tragedies.
No one film can ever do a person’s whole life justice, and when it comes to Hollywood biographies no one should really expect the whole story to be revealed. Complaints about Chaplin could be made for any mainstream film attempting to tell a real life story — not enough detail on how/why they did the things they’re famous for, and time/events/people are compressed for dramatic effect or pacing. The Imitation Game, Walk the Line, Ray, etc., they all share the same problems.
Charlie Chaplin is so beloved by critics and cinephiles that they were overly harsh on the film’s faults, and forgot that most modern audiences know very little about the filmmaker and his work. Some questions should have been probed more, like details on his creative process and the effect his mother’s mental illness must have had on him, but if Chaplin the man wouldn’t discuss such things, how was director Richard Attenborough supposed to include them in the film? How much can a film truly express and explain a person’s genius? The only way to really understand Chaplin’s work is to go and watch his movies. The biopic is for some of his greatest hits, the salacious stuff that happened in his personal life, and for a reminder of Robert Downey Jr.’s talent.