Jared McMillan // Film Critic
Rated R, 119 minutes.
Director: Emilio Estevez
Cast: Emilio Estevez, Taylor Schilling, Alec Baldwin, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jena Malone, Christian Slater, Jacob Vargas, Gabrielle Union and Jeffrey Wright
There’s a scene in Emilio Estevez’s THE PUBLIC where our hero, Stuart Goodson (played by Estevez), is trying to convey the truth of why there is a standoff at the Cincinnati Public Library. Speaking with fame hungry reporter Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union), he decides to wholeheartedly quote The Grapes of Wrath before hanging up the phone. While he is making a personal statement, it falls on deaf ears to her and others unfamiliar with Steinbeck’s prose.
As good of a moment that is in the movie, it proves to be a synopsis of the entire story in that there is a noble spirit to everything, and it is a feel-good movie, but ultimately proves to fall flat.
Stuart is a manager at the public library, which is also a refuge for some of the city’s homeless population. At the beginning of the movie, the audience discovers that Stuart and security guard Ernesto (Jacob Vargas) have been sued by one of the homeless. Prosecutor Paul Davis (Christian Slater) smugly recaps the events: the man was escorted out of the library because his body odor offended the rest of their patrons, violating his rights. They settle for a nice chunk of change, and it also costs Stuart his job.
Meanwhile, there is a worry among the library’s homeless patrons that they will die if they must survive on the streets during a brutal winter, especially seeing others freeze to death. On Stuart’s last day, Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams) lets him know that they will not be leaving and will use the library as an emergency shelter to keep in from the cold.
As time passes, Stuart’s boss Anderson (Jeffrey Wright) calls in for help and the police send in Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin), their best negotiator, to sort things out, but Davis barges in to cause chaos in hopes that it boosts his numbers for the mayoral election. The media soon follow, and what began as a peaceful sit-in soon becomes a misunderstanding. Will Stuart, Jackson and the others be able to keep shelter? Or will this lead to tragedy?
Written and directed by Estevez, THE PUBLIC does well to stay away from a common trope in movies concerning the homeless, which involves a good Samaritan trying to lift someone from the gutter to better themselves. In fact, there’s a scene where Stuart tries to get a man’s life on track only to get beaten up for it. The homeless aren’t looking for a way out, just a place to keep out of the cold. And there’s an interesting juxtaposition in that any scenes involving the homeless are indoors; there is no need to feel pity, they don’t want it.
Furthermore, most of the characters, save for Davis and Parks, are likable. It provides a further investment for the audience in trying to figure out how any of them can get out of this without it getting out of hand. There are a lot of moments that help bring that connection for those characters, whether it’s a meet-cute between Stuart and new super Angela (Taylor Schilling), Jackson and his friends cutting up and having fun, or the fact that Bill is trying to find his junkie son, who is out on the streets.
But all these positives kind of get lost as the plot meanders through a lot of different statements THE PUBLIC seems to be making. A subtle tribute to libraries, the media skewing facts to generate public interest, fear regarding police tactics, etc. It can be said that all of these are just a confluence given the situation they’re involved in, but because there is no follow up, then it becomes preachy, even cheesy. The movie tries to walk the line between feel-good and allegorical, leaving a sense of confusion.
Luckily it comes off as more heartfelt than condescending, especially with an ending that comes so out of left field that you can’t help but smile. THE PUBLIC is nothing if not earnest, charming, a bit dysfunctional, and worth checking out on a lazy weekend.
THE PUBLIC is now playing in select theaters through Greenwich Entertainment.