Biopics generally set up the biggest success of the titular character early, then spend the rest of the movie slowly chipping away at his life, one small tragedy at a time, until the once-proud man has been thoroughly broken. (See The Aviator and A Beautiful Mind.)
So Chaplin, a biography of the funniest star of the silent movie era, hardly brings as many smiles as Chaplin's movies. The pratfalls, the herky-jerky movement, the wacky sound effects -- they're all there. But as soon as the films stop, he takes off his bowler hat, removes his Hitler-stache, and becomes a very sad little man.
Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Chaplin is a far cry from the rat-a-tat one-liner-spewing characters Downey plays today. Downey's Chaplin flashes brief moments of swagger and confidence, but mostly he fits right in with "sad clown" stereotype. While his lips smile, his eyes don't. As indignities add up -- anti-immigration sentiment, romantic failure and accusations of Communism -- he sinks deeper into introversion and isolation.
The brief special features in this "15th Anniversary Edition" are mainly about Chaplin rather than about Chaplin. Some featurettes detail Chaplin's rise, fall, and mystique. There's also some great "home movie" footage of Chaplin mugging for the camera on an ocean cruise. Sadly, neither a director's commentary nor any of Chaplin's short films are included.
The movie itself has a few inspired touches. It's framed from a conversation between Chaplin and the editor of his autobiography. There are moments that are filmed with the same sort of wacky pacing and slapstick as his silent movies. But the silly moments are far outweighed by the somber ones.
If you're looking for a sometimes poignant, deeply melancholic film, Chaplin makes a great pick. But if you're looking for light entertainment, rent City Lights instead. (Rated PG-13)