In the U.S., homeless populations have increasingly turned for daytime shelter to public libraries, which provide not just relief from the elements and a relatively safe, calm environment, but also internet access that may be the only available means of job/housing networking or long-distance communication for most of them. Their presence is an annoyance to some, and a frequent trial to staff — but so far no one has tried to revoke general access to this last bastion of free indoor public space. (But give them time.)
Emilio Estevez’s “The Public” savvily deploys this circumstance for a commentary on up-to-the-moment social issues that’s also a curiously old-fashioned, uplifting dramedy redolent of Frank Capra and William Saroyan. With the writer-director himself as a classic fed-up Average Joe who leads a crew of lovable misfits (i.e. homeless people) in a largely comic rebellion against The Man, this somewhat anachronistic, over-rigged crowd-pleaser-cum-“message movie” at times seems too cute and simplistic for the harsh realities it touches on.
Nonetheless, it largely works. As in Estevez’s not-dissimilar, starrier ensemble piece “Bobby” 12 years ago, this conventionally crafted expression of “Hollywood liberal” empathy consistently engages despite the relative obviousness of its dramatic tactics. Whether it will find much of an audience is another matter — movies about the homeless have almost always been a tough sell.
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During a record-setting brutal Midwestern winter, librarian Stuart (Estevez) doesn’t mind going to work at all — the heating system is on the fritz in his apartment building, exasperating both residents and the new building manager (Taylor Schilling’s Angela) he’s flirtatiously friendly with. The same impulse draws much of Cincinnati’s homeless to the main library every day, where they can escape the subzero temperatures outside that are literally freezing some of them to death each night.
This particular day is otherwise nothing special, bringing the usual amiable sparring from Stuart’s colleague Myra (Jena Malone) and a kerfuffle or two provoked by mental illness among some of the indigent patrons. But our protagonist has developed relationships with most of his “regulars,” and can quell most problems that come up without need of security personnel.
Things take a turn, however, when a group of homeless men led by sly Jackson (Michael K. Williams) decide they won’t be leaving at the close of public hours today. With city shelters full and no other alternatives, they see no reason why this institution can’t become an emergency refuge from the cold for one night, at least. Stuart reluctantly admits they’re right, helping to barricade the doors of the Social Sciences department so they can’t be forcibly evicted.
Of course, the authorities get wind very quickly. Guardedly sympathetic to the men’s cause are Jeffrey Wright’s library chief and Alec Baldwin as a police negotiator who doesn’t want to be stuck with this crisis while his addict son is MIA. Definite foes are Christian Slater as a city prosecutor-slash-mayoral candidate running on a “law and order” platform, and Gabrielle Union as a local TV reporter who sees this story as her big break. These two are all too willing to politicize and distort the situation, painting Stuart as some sort of radicalized criminal ringleader who’s possibly holding hostages, and may require a violent SWAT raid to be dislodged from public property, whereas all that’s really going on is 70-plus homeless dudes staying warm, telling jokes, and eating delivery pizza.
Estevez’s screenplay is a little too neatly constructed, hitting predictable beats and springing pat revelations. For instance, it’s obvious that Baldwin’s missing son is going to turn out to be one of the occupiers, and discovering that Stuart himself was once a homeless addict feels like heavy-handed contrivance. The villains are cartoonish (though Slater does do “despicable” so well), Schilling’s romantic interest is gratuitous, and the big comic/inspirational finale (involving nudity and an a cappella rendition of Johnny Nash’s 1972 hit “I Can See Clearly Now”) couldn’t be more shamelessly calculated.
It’s also hard to overlook the fact that the whole standoff is dependent on Stuart simply, inexplicably failing to explain the situation properly to authorities when he repeatedly gets the chance. Instead, he loftily reads passages aloud from “The Grapes of Wrath,” a device that would have seemed cornball half a century ago.
Estevez has been writing-directing sporadically for more than three decades now, and his movies in that role have steadily improved in both skill and ambition. Still, there’s a self-conscious, awards-baiting quality to them that he’ll have to lose or better mask before arriving at an organic result that truly transcends the sum of its conspicuous good intentions.
Nonetheless, “The Public” is professionally made, eventful and entertaining, with a pace too brisk to over-indulge some flamboyant support turns that might otherwise overstay their welcome. There’s an expansiveness to DP Juan Miguel Azpiroz’s widescreen images that prevents any sense of claustrophobia whatsoever. It takes full advantage of the location: Cincinnati’s Main Library, a sleek modern building (some still mourn the 1955 demolishing of its stunning 1874 predecessor) the film crew accessed almost exclusively during “closed” hours. Though billed as a “world premiere” at the Toronto film festival, the film actually kicked off the Santa Barbara film festival seven months earlier, and has been re-edited since.