When you combine The Public’s penchant for cheap sentiment and its social advocacy message, you get the equivalent of cinematic social conscience fluffernutter that is spread too thin.
It’s hard to watch anytime a director has their heart in the right place then takes a big swing and a miss with their execution. In fact, I’ve always had a soft spot for The Public‘s writer and director Emilio Estevez; his films embrace their own inner melodrama instead of hiding it, which is refreshing in its own way. Unfortunately, when you combine a director’s penchant for cheap sentiment with a social advocacy film, you get the equivalent of cinematic social conscience fluffernutter that is spread too thin.
The Public was inspired by a common practice across the country of the homeless population using urban public libraries as a way to get off the streets during the day because the government-funded buildings can’t turn them away. Sadly, when the libraries close for the night, there aren’t enough shelters to house the ever-growing population. This is the main point of emphasis in the film, where a string of brutally cold winter nights claim multiple lives simply because they don’t have a roof over their heads. The filmmakers want you to ask, how would you help and would you put your job in jeopardy in doing so? Eventually, Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez), a librarian at the Cincinnati Public Library, is faced with this question when a regular patron and a homeless man named Jackson (Michael K. Williams), asks him if they can stay the night because all the shelters are at full capacity.
Estevez directs a deep bench that is cluttered with cliched characters. You have the cynical cop (Alec Baldwin), the politician (Christian Slater), the company man (Jeffrey Wright), the just met, yet unusually involved love interest (Taylor Schilling), the loyal assistant (Jena Malone), and the ambitious reporter who would step over her own mother to get ahead (Gabrielle Union). The only characters I found refreshing were The Wire’s Williams, as the homeless man who organizes the non-violent occupy sit-in, and Traffic’s Jacob Vargas, as a wisecracking library security guard.
Estevez’s script is like raiding your child’s Halloween candy and finding only a couple of Reese’s peanut butter cups in a bag full of Circus Peanuts. The concept of the film, a librarian’s role, and depictions of the homeless population that are mentally-ill and impoverished is accurate (a moment where a homeless patron’s naked and causing a scene in a public library, if you research it, happens more frequently than you think) and is genuine. The rest is filled with multiple subplots that are nothing but filler and added while offering nothing additionally probative to the film’s main focus. When you combined this with a commentary that is too earnest for its own good and several overly hammy melodramatic scenes, the overwhelming sappiness weighs down its message.
Then, there are several moments of the disingenuous variety that filmmakers are always so fond of; Slater’s politician character is running for Mayor of Cincinnati but is behind in the polls because the voters feel he isn’t relatable. Wouldn’t he be better served in displaying actions of human kindness, bringing in food, clothing, and calling for an emergency shelter for his constituents? After all, he is a District Attorney that has to be tough on crime, but as a Mayor, you need to show the people you care about the greater good. Does he perform a photo-op and take a victory lap? No, he acts on a petty vendetta and resorts to spreading “fake-news.” Then there is Union’s ambitious reporter, who ignores evidence that the non-violent protest is not a hostage situation, and spreads her own “fake-news” because her coverage of the story is spiking her twitter followers. Why false report a hostage situation when exposing a mayoral candidate for lying about it is an even bigger scoop and a career-making story in itself? Throw on top the obvious head-scratching moments of non-cleared personnel allowed to roam free past police barricades to keep fluff plot lines alive and tell me why there is only one scene, in the entire film, that has anyone outside actually showing you can see their cold breath on the coldest night of the year?
Your opinion of Esteves’s film will depend on your enjoyment or disdain of its overtly sentimental melodrama. For me, having to judge a film on its face value, no matter the good intentions, this is exactly the film you need to remake in the future because they really had something special here but squandered the opportunity. There are several subplots that should have been scrapped to focus on the film’s main objective. Instead, The Public is the equivalent of cinematic social conscience fluffernutter, while the script’s social commentary is too earnest for its own good.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.