Picks and Pans Review: Chaplin

updated 01/11/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Kline

Richard Attenborough, best known for directing the gargantuan movie biography Gandhi, manages to make absolutely no sense out of the life of Charlie Chaplin. For example, the movie devotes more time to showing how Chaplin slaved over the musical score to Modern Times than to the actual filming of the classic 1936 comedy. Downey, as Chaplin, noodles at the piano for days until his wife, actress Paulette Goddard (Diane Lane), stomps in and announces, "Well, the Fairbankses are getting divorced, and Mussolini has invaded Abyssinia!"

There's nothing Chaplinesque in Downey's courageous but not especially compelling performance. Downey at times looks strikingly like Chaplin, although he doesn't have the original's androgynous, rabbity prettiness. (With his large moist eyes, Downey suggests a Walter Keane portrait. Made up as the old Chaplin, he looks like Howard the Duck covered with talcum powder.) His British accent is good, and he does a few expert pratfalls. But the five minutes of genuine, breathtaking Chaplin footage that close the movie show how impossible Downey's task was. Kline, in his ironic-swashbuckler mode, is much more entertaining as Douglas Fairbanks.

Meanwhile the story goes racing through the Chaplin catalog of scandals. The rapid procession of young lovers and wives reduces a fleet of talented actresses—including Moira Kelly, as Oona O'Neill, and Penelope Ann Miller, as Edna Purviance—to walk-ons, mere Keystone Copettes. The best thing in Chaplin is Geraldine Chaplin, his own daughter, now 48, who has been cast as her grandmother Hannah, a music-hall performer abandoned by her husband and driven to madness by the pressure of raising Charlie and his half brother, Sydney, in the London slums. She plays the part with heartbreaking fragility but without any of the tear-tugging pathos that her father might have wanted if he had directed. (PG-13)

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