- - Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Spoiler alert: J. Edgar Hoover was gay - maybe. The history is complicated and subject to dispute, and the truth about the founder and longtime director of the FBI may never be known. But “J. Edgar,” Clint Eastwood’s new biopic about Hoover, makes its feelings about the famous federal enforcer plenty clear: Despite his reputation as an enforcer of conventional moral norms, the man was probably a homosexual, although he may have never admitted it - even to himself.

Mr. Eastwood’s take on Hoover, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is characteristically humanizing, and impressively balanced given how polarizing his subject can be. Mr. Eastwood doesn’t cast judgment on his subject, but he does provide plenty of fodder for anyone who’d like to bang the gavel himself. The problem is that Mr. Eastwood’s unwillingness to cast judgment, while commendable, also manifests itself as a sort of shapelessness, devoid of any larger, nuanced argument about the man. All Mr. Eastwood really has is a single, simple idea: that Hoover's self-repression might have driven his never-ending inquests into the personal lives of others.

Mr. Eastwood, for his part, can’t quite decide whether to focus on Hoover's personal life or his work. The movie flits back and forth between scenes with Hoover's overbearing mother, whom he lived with far into his adulthood; scenes with his longtime partner, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer); and scenes at the fledging bureau. But Mr. Eastwood never manages to satisfyingly connect the various threads. He tries to make a case that there’s no separating Hoover's personal life from his job, but in the end, Mr. Eastwood doesn’t have enough to say about either.

Structurally, the movie is a mess, shifting back and forth between Hoover's younger and older years without adequately informing viewers of just when in history many of the scenes are taking place. Presidents come and go, as do various real and imagined threats to the nation.

To some extent, this is just a result of the framing device: The movie is “told” to viewers by an old Hoover dictating his life story to young FBI stenographers - many of the scenes are introduced by clumsy voice-over transitions, almost like “Sex and the City” episodes. Perhaps the idea was to set viewers adrift in the whirl of Hoover's own end-of-life memories, but the result is a just a muddle.

At the center of that muddle is Mr. DiCaprio, obviously gunning for Oscar gold. Buried for much of the movie in disconcerting old-age makeup, Mr. DiCaprio never quite achieves the pudgy, bug-eyed intensity of the real-life Hoover, who in photographs sometimes looked like an unfortunate creature out of an old Hollywood B-movie. Both Mr. DiCaprio and Hoover share a certain stunted boyishness, but even through layers of wrinkly prosthetics, the film’s leading man can’t hide his golden-boy’s beauty.

As Tolson, Mr. Hammer doesn’t fare so well. With the aid of digital effects, Mr. Hammer managed to portray identical twins as recognizably unique individuals in last year’s “The Social Network,” but here he’s trapped under layers of ineffective old-age goop. Worse, he’s eventually forced to serve as Hoover's surrogate conscience, earnestly awkward lines and all. There’s a good actor buried under all that ill-advised makeup and clunky scripting - and perhaps even a good movie as well. Too bad we never really get to see either.

★★½

TITLE: “J. Edgar

CREDITS: Directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Dustin Lance Black

RATING: R for mild violence, sexual innuendo

RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS