I wish I would have taken a look at the poster for “The Public” before I decided to see it. If you haven’t seen the poster, try to recall “Love Actually’”s, swap in “The Public”’s cast, substitute a book stack for ribbon and you’ve got it. Can you see it? I hope so. This poster telegraphs all due warnings about the shortcomings of this film: It has more characters than it knows what to do with, it thinks passing references to the power of literature suffice and Emilio Estevez (“The Breakfast Club”) is in the middle of the confusion.
“The Public” has Estevez written all over it. He wrote, directed and starred in this confused tale of a librarian at the Cincinnati Public Library who, in an out-of-character move, takes a stand and occupies the library with its homeless patrons who have no other place to stay for the excruciating winter night. Unfortunately, Estevez strikes out on all three counts, and the movie that could have been a timely statement about the continued importance of activism and civil disobedience, of refusing to remain silent in the face of governmental neglect, is a dud.
First, Estevez’s direction leads us nowhere compelling. At best, it’s as disorienting as his overwhelming number of characters and subplots. At worst, it’s laughable. Take, for example, his montages: He randomly inserts two in which people make various idiosyncratic requests at the library help desk, set to a nondescript, upbeat score that sounds like it might have been borrowed from iMovie.
His direction is nothing compared to his script, however. The dialogue is awkwardly expository, painfully stilted and often guilty of sapping even important, culturally relevant conversations of all their poignance.
Then comes his acting. Simply put, Estevez cannot bear the weight of this story. He delivers the stilted lines he wrote without any notable charisma. Librarians, notoriously underappreciated and mistaken for being uncool, are owed an apology, because Estevez convinces us of nothing but his uncoolness. Worse than that, his lack of charisma is contagious. It grieves me to say that even commanding “Wire” alumnus Michael K. Williams’s star dulls in scenes with Estevez. Same goes for Jenna Malone. The only one who seems immune to Estevez’s dullness is Taylor Schilling (“Orange Is the New Black”); her character, however, is written inexplicably into a relationship with Estevez’s character, so I suppose she falls victim to him in another way.
To top it all off, the film, overextended by its multiplicity of characters and incongruous subplots, ends up creating more ambiguities than anything else, many of which are just as troubling as they are puzzling. The most troubling of these ambiguities was Estevez’s treatment of mental illness. In a film like “The Public,” too confusing to be dark or pessimistic, comic relief was not a necessity, yet Estevez wove it in, often at the expense of homeless library patrons with mental illnesses. In fact, Che “Rhymefest” Smith’s character, Big George, operated exclusively as the butt of insensitive jokes about his delusion that his eyes having laser beams that kill people upon eye contact. The ambiguity surfaces when Estevez’s character gives George his glasses, claiming it will impede the laser beams. Does Estevez want to check off another box on his Christ figure checklist (feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and returning sight to the blind)? Does that make him an ally, after having manipulated George throughout the film, for humor's sake or otherwise? Does Estevez even know what he wants?
I’m still wondering. For a challenging, complex debate about forms of activism, tune in to “On the Basis of Sex.” For a rallying cry in favor of civil disobedience and a blunt exposé of false allyship, watch (or read) “The Hate U Give.” Watch any number of films I’m missing, but don’t bother with “The Public.”