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 (telegraphing a 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 just don’t add up.
Sure, Estevez’s heart is in the right place. And he knows how to construct a story.
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.
It’s hard to disagree with anything in “The Public.” Estevez is fighting the good fight. But it’s also hard to swallow an argument, however well-reasoned and emotionally compelling, when it feels like it’s being shoved down your throat.
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