It gives me no joy to report that, as much as I like Emilio Estevez, I greatly disliked his latest film, “The Public,” which he wrote, directed and co-stars. This Cincinnati-set drama showcases an ensemble cast as workers and patrons of The Public Library of Cincinatti and Hamilton County. We meet Jena Malone, playing a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who shelves books and flirts with Stuart, her boss (played by Estevez). While Stuart and Anderson (played by Jeffrey Wright) are overseeing a lawsuit made against the library by an ambitious D.A. (played by Christian Slater), we’re also introduced to a detective (played by Alec Baldwin) who spends his days searching for his missing son, Stuart’s landlord/lover (played by Taylor Schilling) and an obnoxious reporter (Gabrielle Union, badly misused) also figure into the story. All of these characters and more come together when a group of homeless library patrons take over the building and refuse to leave. While the sit in is made over an unwillingness to face the deathly cold outside, the peaceful protest is treated like a hostage situation.
From the very beginning, Estevez’s screenplay undermines the noble intentions of the story. The cutesy, very sitcom-ready banter tries too hard and establishes a rhythm that might have worked for a stage play but not here. Following a great PSA on America’s libraries, the dialog is so cheeky, the film is a disaster from the get-go. Not helping are a Greek chorus of wacky homeless men, whose mannerisms and word choices are so contrived (not to mention sanitized), they might as well have wandered in from “Home Alone 2.”
There’s a serious, meaningful conversion the film incites about taking care of the homeless and being accountable for those among us but the relentlessly goofy banter detaches the audience from the tougher issues at hand. If anything, the vital topics that come up (what is the responsibility of government workers towards homeless citizens? Why can’t a city library provide a shelter from sub-zero temperatures?) are better than the fictitious scenarios that develop here. The characters are supposed to be a microcosm of Cincinnati but Estevez is not Robert Altman, as none of these people seem remotely real.
I won’t describe it, but the standoff culminates with a truly embarrassing sequence that is telegraphed from an unfortunate sequence early on. I felt especially sorry for Wright, Baldwin and Union, all of whom are too good to be in this. Slater overplays his role but at least appears to be enjoying himself.
Many touches are so on-the-nose in their self righteousness, I wondered is Estevez was putting me on. At one point, Estevez makes a point by picking up “The Grapes of Wrath” and directly quoting Steinbeck. Later, Estevez frames Wright by having him stand next to a portrait of Frederick Douglass (hey Emilio, Wright is playing a Cincinnati library employee, not a history-changing abolitionist! You’re overreaching!).
Estevez has always been unfairly affiliated with the so-called “Brat Pack” and noted for his early work but his career is as under-appreciated as it is impressive. He’s worked with filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Alex Cox, Tim Hunter and Luc Besson. For a certain generation, he was our first Billy The Kid, though its especially eye opening to consider he made “The Outsiders,” “Repo Man” and “The Breakfast Club” back-to-back (cult film fanatics will note he snuck in his turn as arcade hall junkie J.J. Cooney in “Nightmares” during that same period).
By not using his father Martin Sheen’s last name or allowing nepotism to cushion his career, Estevez’s choices as an actor are versatile (his work in the “Stakeout” vehicles display a sharp comic timing) and interesting (quick, name another actor of his generation who starred in movie directed by Stephen King!).
As a director, Estevez has made a handful of films that are ambitious and not at all safe, resulting in an uneven but intriguing collection of movies. His debut, “Wisdom,” in which he starred alongside Demi Moore, was an intended “Bonnie and Clyde” for the 1980’s that never landed. His follow-up, the goofy 1990 buddy comedy “Men At Work,” starring Estevez and his brother Charlie Sheen, is noteworthy for being the only comedy I can think of that center entirely around sanitation workers.
Then came the great, absurdly little-seen “The War At Home,” in which Estevez played a disturbed war veteran; the strength of the performances (the ensemble cast includes Kathy Bates, Martin Sheen and Kimberly Williams) and the extent that Estevez had opened up a stage play (James Duff’s “Home Front”) marked an accomplished work. Rumor has it that Estevez made the third “Mighty Ducks” at Disney in order to finance “The War At Home.”
In 2001, Estevez unveiled “Rated X,” the trying-too-hard, 70’s-set porn drama in which Estevez and real life sibling Charlie Sheen portrayed the Mitchell Brothers; it proved a middling effort, with scenes of Sheen going on drug binges feeling uncomfortably exploitative. The acclaimed “Bobby” in 2006 boasted an extraordinary ensemble cast and an ambitious but scattered screenplay. Only the film’s tragic ending resonates, though Estevez impressed many with his mixed attempt at Altman-esque crowd control.
Estevez’s best directorial work to date is “The Way,” (2011), which starred Martin Sheen as a doctor who walks the Camino De Santiago trail. It showcases one of Sheen’s finest performances and offers a patient, thoughtful and restrained character drama.
I mention all of this because Estevez’s directorial efforts, as hit and miss as they are, consistently display an admirably offbeat sensibility, ambition and a nod towards Hal Ashby-ish whimsical, character-driven narratives. I hope he keeps grinding away as a director, as it feels like he’s pushing towards something promising. “The Way” is a small film but a captivating indie that earns its heartfelt afterglow. There’s compassion in “The Public” but it plays like a confused, tonally wonky and timid misfire. Like a long overdue library book that you’re embarrassed to have borrowed and read in the first place, “The Public” make me cringe. I suspect Estevez is capable of so much more than this.
The Public is playing at the Regal Dole Cannery Stadium on Oahu.