Emilio Estevez tackles so many hot-button issues in “The Public” it’s like he’s prepping for a dozen TED Talks.
“The Public” is a clumsy ode to tax-supported libraries and a cry for more homeless intervention. It also mocks dirty reporters, dirtier politicians and thuggish cops.
In between, Estevez takes a few micro-shots at Social Justice Warriors. And “The Public” is just clearing its throat. Add it all together, and we’re left with a film that’s exhausting, silly and hardly worth your while.
The film opens with palpable promise. Writer/director Estevez stars as Stuart, a kind-hearted librarian with a pragmatic streak. That’s a job requirement for an urban library chief. He knows Cincinnati’s homeless gather at his “office” to brush their teeth, change clothes and stay one step ahead of the winter chill.
The homeless patrons, led by Michael K. Williams, appreciate Stuart’s kindness. That might not be enough, though. A winter chill is beckoning, and area homeless shelters can’t handle more people.
So the library’s most needy souls stage a sit-in, staying in the building past its traditional hours. And Stuart, caught between his duties and bond with the library’s “regulars,” is forced to pick a side.
And that’s where “The Public” careens straight downhill.
Estevez’s directorial career made little noise until he uncorked the sublime 2010 drama “The Way.” That uppercut suggested he had found his voice, or at least could temper his soapier instincts. The latter explode here like a skyline on July Fourth.
The subplots alone could fill a limited Netflix series. Alec Baldwin, cast as the world’s most inept negotiator, is simultaneously trying to find his missing, drug-addicted son. Area D.A. (Christian Slater in full villain mode) hopes to leverage the protest for his own political goals.
A local news reporter (Gabrielle Union) is thinking scoop, scoop and nothing else. And Taylor Schilling has one awkwardly written scene to show she’s both the film’s moral compass and Stuart’s potential love interest.
FAST FACT: Emilio Estevez’s family is awash in actors, including father Martin Sheen, mother Janet Sheen, brothers Charlie Sheen and Ramon Estevez and sister Renee Estevez.
Then we have the various homeless characters. One fellow looks down all the time because the government planted laser beams in his eyes as a baby. Naturally, Stuart has the answer to that problem, one of many howlers running amok in the film’s second half.
For all the silliness and virtue signaling, “The Public” occasionally surprises. Jena Malone’s woke librarian character gets called out on her faux activism.
Estevez has fun tweaking some of the curious questions library patrons ask. It does more than make us smile. It reminds us of the library’s collective value. These unassuming venues let us question every part of our lives, large and small.
Baldwin delivers a rant late in the movie that shares more wisdom than most of the film’s on-the-nose dialogue.
Estevez is so busy “raising issues” and “debating” that he forgets to keep the story foremost in mind. It’s a crush of obvious talking points hailing from the Left. Sure, Estevez offers a semblance of balance, which is dutifully appreciated. Still, it’s clear where his heart lies here, and the obviousness only adds to the boredom.
Alec Baldwin, Emilio Estevez and Michael K. Williams talk about their new film, “The Public”, and the significance of this date and their movie. Williams also talks about how this role changed his life. pic.twitter.com/7kX0uJ7p9i
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) April 1, 2019
What’s even worse are the cutesy call backs. “The Public” adds fine texture with an aside here, a character flaw there. Later, the film returns to these morsels at pivotal times. It gives the film a hopelessly contrived patina that can’t be ignored.
When a key character recites lines from “The Grapes of Wrath” your eye-rolling may require medical attention.
It’s. Just. That. Precious.
The plot holes, and they’re endless, hardly help solidify the story.
The homeless folks in “The Public” are mostly cute and cuddly. The ravages of drug use, alcoholism and mental illness are either shoved aside or captured in toothless reveals. Williams’ character offers a stunning admission, though, one that takes the knees out of their heartfelt protest.
Did anyone on set realize it, though? They were probably too busy virtue signaling along with their director to notice.
HiT or Miss: “The Public” means so darn well it’s hard to trash it. But trash it we must.