“The Public” wants to be an exercise in empathy but it is also an exercise in patience.
The new star-studded drama is slow to start, stumbling out of the gate by introducing too many characters and a clunky setup. It gets better as it goes along but it also feels forced and fails to organically yield any genuine emotions. The film’s intentions are most certainly in the right place but the entertainment value is lost in a catalog of contrivances.
Set in Downtown Cincinnati during an unusually bitter Arctic blast, The Public stars Emilio Estevez as a librarian who sees a regular winter day shaken up when homeless patrons decide to take shelter in his public library for the night. At odds with library officials over how to handle the extreme weather event, homeless patrons stage an “Occupy” sit in.
What begins as an act of civil disobedience becomes a stand-off with police and a rush-to-judgment media constantly speculating about what’s really happening. The David versus Goliath story, which tackles issues of homelessness and mental illness, co-stars Jena Malone, Christian Slater, Alec Baldwin, Taylor Schilling, Gabrielle Union and Jeffrey Wright.
The cast that Estevez, who also wrote and directed the movie, is quite impressive. Therefore, it is easy to be immediately drawn to the flick while remaining interested and hopeful during its slow first act. “The Public” also earns points each time it shows a montage of library patrons asking questions that are likely listed somewhere on Google’s Hall of Fame for weirdness (even though you probably want to know the answers yourself).
However, Estevez’s approach as a filmmaker mimics his approach as an actor. That is to say he’s rather stilted and stoic. You never once see Estevez’s character smile, frown or even wince over the course of the flick. Nor does the movie itself express any sort of emotion. Instead, it tells us what to think and how to feel. We, as an audience, are not trusted to come to our own valid conclusions based on the injustices that are transpiring on the screen.
Granted, we come to care about the individuals inside of the library, but many of them feel like caricatures rather than authentic people who are facing insurmountable struggles. Estevez presents one strong scene in which a group of the homeless men discusses the number of times they have been arrested and the reasons behind said arrests but it is an exception in an otherwise flat affair.
The significance behind the way in which the conflict is resolved is also somewhat of an enigma. It is almost as if Estevez said, “I want something memorable,” but forgot his finale should also make some sort of sense in the overall scope of the film. That said, “The Public” will not have you on the edge of your seat or jumping up from it with tears and applause—but it will at least make you feel as though you are watching something of importance.