Have you ever watched a movie, listened to an album, and come out having no feelings about it whatsoever? You didn’t love it, you didn’t hate it, it’s an experience you’ll acknowledge you’ve had, that you know you enjoyed at the very least, but it’s one that you can recall nothing about if or how you connected with it emotionally?
This is exactly how I feel about ‘The Public’.
Emilio Estevez (‘The Mighty Ducks’) pulls quadruple duty as writer, director, producer and lead star of ‘The Public’, a drama that focuses on the rights and responsibilities of the community to show compassion to others. There’s a cold wave taking hold of Cincinnati, in extreme cases claiming the lives of those without a home to keep themselves warm in. The homeless spend their days visiting the Cincinnati Public Library (the film was actually filmed on location there), bonding with librarian Stuart (played by Eztevez). It's from this bond that a group of homeless library patrons decide that Stuart and the library’s goodwill should extend to letting them stay past closing hours, rather than be turned away from the already full shelters and face the freezing temperatures outside. The resulting standoff catches the attention of a publicity-seeking prosecutor (Christian Slater, ‘Nymphomaniac’) and a TV news report ready to spin the reality of the situation into one for her own benefit (Gabrielle Union, ‘Girls Trip’).
Estevez has managed to pull together a pretty impressive ensemble including Union, Slater, Jena Malone (‘The Neon Demon’), Alec Baldwin (‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout‘), Taylor Schilling (TV’s ‘Orange is the New Black’), Jacob Vargas (‘Devil’), and Jeffrey Wright (‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’), all of whom seem to be going for different levels of cheese depending on what the script calls for at any given time. While Estevez does try to give each character some individuality, ultimately they all feel cut from the same cloth; all able to trade quips and one-liners (especially Stuart, often rocking a hilariously positioned beanie), and all seem to have some sort of agenda regarding the incident. There are genuine attempts to make something iconic and meaningful here, but the script doesn’t have the gravitas to pull it off (it is especially not aided by the score, which features some curious uses of percussion which would feel more at home in a television ad). It’s such a shame, since the film prods at bigger ideas of how democracy does and should treat the lower class, and how public places such as a library represent a physical area accessible to all, regardless of class, race or gender, knowledge and comfort.
Estevez is not a bad director by any stretch of the imagination; he is simply a boring one.
The film's colour grading is drained of warmth which makes the Cincinnati chill feel real, but that’s about as far as the film goes in terms of establishing any tone. It's shot like pretty much everything you’ve seen before; framing and editing are, at its best, incredibly conventional, and at its worst, downright confusing. One particular scene involves Estevez beginning his line facing away from the camera, with a cut to a reaction shot halfway through him turning around and finishing his line. There seems to be a number of such choices that appear thrown in for the hell of it, along with some fades to black that feel prepped for a television ad break. This isn’t to say that Estevez is a bad director by any stretch of the imagination; he is simply a boring one. From the opening scene, a montage of the streets of Cincinnati set to a bombastic rap song that matches the tone of the film in lyrical content only, it’s pretty obvious that ‘The Public’ will probably be about as subtle with its stylistic flairs as a sledgehammer.
‘The Public’ feels like the kind of political and cultural commentary needed right now, and it’s obvious that Estevez has crafted something he is passionate about, with good intention. However, the script is sadly so entry-level that it struggles to challenge audiences in the face of its desire to have universal appeal and accessibility. It’s still worth seeing, but only for the work of the cast and to inspire discourse on the topics the film touches on – no doubt deeper than the film itself.