Richard Attenborough directed, from a script by William Goldman and William Boyd and Bryan Forbes. While Dickie A. was a competent director, even won the Oscar for Gandhi, I don’t think anyone ever described his work as anything much more elevated than that. Workmanlike. Gets the job done. There’s not anything fundamentally wrong with that—not everyone can be a Hitchcock or a Kubrick—you don’t expect fireworks to go off. And that’s what this is. It hits the high and low points of Charlie Chaplin’s life, but I wouldn’t vouch for its authenticity. In particular, his brother Syd being opposed to almost all the strokes of genius Charlie came up with feels suspicious to me. It’s like he was drafted into the part of all those who didn’t understand Charlie’s vision, and lord knows there must have been a lot of those when the great comic set out to film stuff like The Great Dictator. But maybe that was true.
As I said, most of this is unremarkable, though the evocation of a bygone era is wonderful to watch. What sets it apart is the glorious performance by Robert Downey, Jr., during the bad old days of his drug problems. He not only looks something like Charlie, and nails his physical mannerisms (though almost any good mimic can do that), it is just wonderful work on every level. Both Jim Carrey and Johnny Depp were considered, and Peter Sellers had worked on a Chaplin project years before, and I’m sure all of those guys could have done a bang-up job, but it fell to Downey, and he nailed it.
Though Buster Keaton rivals him and Harold Lloyd was coming up on the rail behind both of them, in the end, Charlie Chaplin was the greatest genius the cinema has ever produced. In my not-so-humble opinion. No one has ever made me laugh and cry more frequently. Not only did he write, produce, direct, and star in his best movies, he wrote the goddam score to many of them. He did everything but paint the poster to go out front of the theater, and he probably could have done that, too.
And how did we reward him? Why, by deporting the communistic, morally turpitudinous son-of-a-bitch from 1952 to 1972. Most of this courtesy of J. Edgar Hoover, the worst internal enemy this country ever had. When he did return it was to accept an honorary Oscar, which brought down the house.
A lot of the supporting cast are people worth mentioning, like Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks, Dan Aykroyd as Mack Sennett, Marisa Tomei as Mabel Normand, and Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard. Penelope Ann Miller plays Edna Purviance, who starred in 33 movies with Charlie. Her career came to an end with the sound era, but he kept her on his payroll until her death. And in a nice bit of casting, Geraldine Chaplin plays her own loony grandmother, Hannah.