Chaplin (1992) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Chaplin showed that Robert Downey Jr. might have had the potential to be the greatest actor of his generation. How many actors can assay the role of a certified genius and not look like a complete schmuck? 

Remember Paul Shenar as Orson Welles? James Brolin as Clark Gable? Ray Liotta as Sinatra? Michael Chiklis as Belushi? 

In order to portray such a magical comic, Downey had to have the magic himself, and he did. Unfortunately, because of the ups and downs of his personal life, Downey has spent the rest of his career messing up his opportunities, or working for anybody with a few bucks who would take a chance on hiring him. 

Downey is, I guess, the Brady Anderson of acting. 


an astounding amount of nudity for a PG-13 film
  • Moira Kelly - extended topless scene
  • Milla Jovovich - nipple peel and extended rear nudity
  • Diane lane - brief exposure of a single nipple
  • various chorus girls - topless backstage

Brady is a pretty good but unspectacular baseball player who fashioned a solid major league career by playing a good centerfield, hustling, and getting on base. Then one year, out of nowhere, he destroyed American League pitching and hit 50 homers, after hitting 13, 12, and 16 in the previous three years. Whatever magic Brady found that year, he promptly lost it and went back to being the player he had been before, hitting 18 homers in each of the following two years. In his magical 1996 year, Brady slugged .637, a great year for DiMaggio. His second best year was .469. Nobody has ever figured what happened to Brady that year, especially Brady himself.

Downey's career is similar. He usually can be counted on for a solid and interesting interpretation of any role, but all of a sudden in 1992, at the tender age of 27, he was offered the chance to play one of the greatest geniuses in the history of film, and he pulled it off so well he got an Oscar nomination. He then reverted back to the haze he had always been in. What happened to Downey? Did he clean up just long enough to show he could do it? Did he channel the real Chaplin? Or was he just a mediocre actor who was lucky enough to get the career-defining role so early in his life? 

It isn't completely rare for an otherwise average performer to deliver a spectacular performance when handed the perfect part. One need only mention Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Bubba Smith in "Police Academy 6: City Under Siege". But I don't think that's the case with Downey. I think he's always had a superior level of talent, but his private life has consistently stood between him and greatness.

SIDEBAR: More thoughts on actors playing entertainment legends. Here are some who have done well, in my opinion: 

  • Dan Travanti as Edward R. Murrow

  • Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis

  • Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce

  • Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. 

The movie itself is a fairly straightforward biopic, loosely based on Chaplin's own memoirs. It isn't dazzling, but it offers some interesting looks at the man, and at the early days of Hollywood. Because it is about a funny man, it has some laughs. Because it is about a man who became an outcast, it also has some dramatic moments. Production values are excellent, and the women are gorgeous

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterboxed, 1.85:1

  • trailer, featurette, and some written notes

  • this really needs a new, anamorphically enhanced, transfer

Unfortunately, it has two big flaws:

1)  the film attempts a broad-brush picture of Charlie's entire long life, so it ends up being little more than a chronological highlight reel. If you don't know any beforehand, can you watch this film, then name two Chaplin movies? 

2) It's actually fairly tame, considering how controversial Chaplin was. He was a noted seducer, a lover of young flesh, and a champion of political causes then thought radical. (J. Edgar Hoover thought Charlie was a commie bastard). The bland portrayal shown here is Charlie's own fault, after all. The movie is based on his own words and, like a good old magician, he never did reveal enough of his secrets. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two stars. Ebert 2/4, Berardinelli 2/4, Maltin 2.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.9 
  • With their dollars ... it grossed only $9 million!
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. OK old-fashioned Hollywood biopic, sometimes entertaining, but too superficial, attempts to be too encompassing, and fails to develop multi-dimensional views of the events portrayed.

Return to the Movie House home page