Movie review: Overstuffed 'The Public' takes heavy hand with moralistic message

 
By Michael O'Sullivan
The Washington Post
Updated 4/5/2019 9:55 AM
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  • A homeless man (Michael Kenneth Williams), left, and librarian (Emilio Estevez) get caught up in a protest at Cincinnati's main public library in "The Public."

    A homeless man (Michael Kenneth Williams), left, and librarian (Emilio Estevez) get caught up in a protest at Cincinnati's main public library in "The Public." Courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group/Greenwich Entertainment

"The Public" - ★

In "The Public," a moralistic new melodrama that pits a group of cuddly homeless men against a soulless, uncaring bureaucracy, a character remarks on the difficulty of choosing the virtuous path in life. "Our biggest problem," says a chirpy do-gooder (Jena Malone) early in the film, is knowing "which side of the 'right' we're walking on."

For other characters in this story -- about the takeover of Cincinnati's main public library by a contingent of street people, on the coldest night of the year -- things are less ambiguous: "You're either one of us, or you're one of them," says Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams) the wise leader of the homeless siege, to the waffling head librarian, played by the ever-earnest writer-director Emilio Estevez.

It's a little too on-the-nose that this librarian turns out to be a formerly homeless person himself -- a man named Stuart Goodson (good son, get it?) -- and that his main adversary, once Stuart decides to risk his job by letting the insurgents move in, is an overreacting cop named Ramstead (a moniker that neatly telegraphs the character's intransigence and reliance on brute force over negotiation).

Much of Estevez's film is similarly reductive. On one side are Stuart and Jackson, the charmingly rumpled, de facto representative of the dozens of homeless men -- and yes, for some inexplicable reason, they are all men -- who stage a protest movement by commandeering the library on a subzero night. And on the other side are Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) and the city's coldblooded district attorney (Christian Slater), who implausibly promote the bizarre narrative that, despite all evidence, Stuart is holding the men hostage at gunpoint.

That is only one of a handful of things that don't add up.

Sure, Estevez's heart is in the right place. As he demonstrated with his fine last film, "The Way," the director is interested in things that few other filmmakers are willing to tackle with his level of honesty, including spirituality and ethical living.

A detective (Alec Baldwin) takes a hard line when homeless men take over the Cincinnati library in "The Public."
A detective (Alec Baldwin) takes a hard line when homeless men take over the Cincinnati library in "The Public." - Courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group/Greenwich Entertainment

But this time, he has stuffed "The Public" with too many issues for a single movie, including (but not limited to) addiction, poverty, race, the environment, the death of literacy and the political machine. This is a small film with some big-ish names in it: Jeffrey Wright plays Stuart's boss, Taylor Schilling is his love interest and Gabrielle Union is a TV reporter. But it topples under the weight of its unwieldy themes.

The library setting gives Estevez the chance to signal his thoughtfulness: A man is shown reading Thomas Dumm's "Loneliness As a Way of Life" at one point; at another, Stuart quotes from "The Grapes of Wrath" in response to a reporter's interview question. He is chided, moments later, for his intellectual arrogance.

Intellectual arrogance is not the problem with the film. Rather, it's the tone of moral superiority. It's hard to disagree with anything in "The Public." But it's also hard to swallow an argument, however compelling, when it feels like it's being shoved down your throat.

• • •

Starring: Emilio Estevez, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alec Baldwin, Jena Malone, Christian Slater, Jeffrey Wright

Directed by: Emilio Estevez

Other: A Universal Pictures Content Group/Greenwich Entertainment release. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, nudity, language, drug abuse, a racial epithet and suggestive material. 122 minutes

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