Actor-director Emilio Estevez (“The Way”) directs the well-intentioned yet tepid drama “The Public,” about a homeless occupation of a public library in winter. The film is well-made and slickly produced but suffers a bit from a hammy performance by Alec Baldwin and a conventional treatment that feels like television.
It is bitterly cold in Cincinnati, Ohio. The homeless look to the library as a relief from biting temperatures. Though there are some eccentric behaviors, contentment and respect is maintained by the sensitive librarian Stuart Goodson (Estevez), who had been on the street nearly a decade ago, and his progressive co-worker Myra (Jena Malone).
One day, a homeless man stretches himself before the windows, naked and singing. Security is called. Stuart is faced with a lawsuit claiming he forced a patron to leave because of his body odor.
During the following days, Stuart attempts to be more strict, closing promptly at 6:00 pm. The homeless group headed by Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams) insists that this is cruel and dangerous due to the severe cold. He refuses to vacate along with 100 others.
Abruptly the police are called with DA Josh Davis (Christian Slater) and Detective Ramstead (Baldwin).
Both sides of the fence are too simplistically delivered with the politician (Slater) acting insensitively, and the icy enforcer (Baldwin) showing little beyond a huff and a puff and a steely glare. By midway, we are in the land of clichés with an occupation raising hell and “making noise” as Estevez sympathetically nods. We also get a superficial cosmetically perfect reporter played by Gabrielle Union.
What the film does do well, despite its predictable analysis, is its portrayal of librarians on the whole as being kind custodians of information with no judgment or conditions. This is a wonderful concept and a hallmark of our democracy.
Also well done are the montages featuring diverse library patrons focusing on facial expression and gesture. After all, it is the people themselves that give libraries its joyful function, its growth and full capacity.
It is only the narrative that feels tight fisted and heavy-handed. Davis and Ramstead sigh and gnash their teeth. The librarians raise their fists. By the time the homeless / librarian occupation reveals itself (and more) singing a song by Johnny Nash, and clearly in the right, one feels a bit put upon, despite some surprise.
“The Public” has some good performances from Estevez and Jeffrey Wright as the direct library head. This is a standard rebellion film with some good details. It only fails in its portrayal of Might vs. Right and the suits against the seekers with little in between. Unfortunately, its ideas are too thickly drawn.
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