Elegant, funny and unexpectedly touching, this whodunit about a murder aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst represents a bracing comeback for Peter Bogdanovich. The director of The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon and Mask hasn’t made a feature since The Thing Called Love in 1993. As an actor, Bogdanovich can be seen playing the shrink to Lorraine Bracco’s shrink on The Sopranos. But it’s his rep as a film historian (This Is Orson Welles, Who the Devil Made It) that makes him an inspired choice to direct the film of Steven Peros’ play.
Hollywood has buzzed for years about what really happened that weekend in November 1924 when media mogul Hearst (Edward Herrmann), the inspiration for the character of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, hosted a yachting party. The guests included silent-screen genius Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), film innovator Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) and British novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley). The married Hearst is violently jealous of his young mistress, the actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), and suspects she and Chaplin are carrying on in secret. Bogdanovich cuts through the artificiality of high-style glamour and bitchy laughs with generous emotion. As for his request that critics refrain from naming who is shot, no big deal. The kick of the film isn’t in solving the mystery, which is still shrouded in speculation, but in enjoying the atmosphere established by Bogdanovich and the camera magician Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie) — and in the scrappy, layered performances. Izzard, the comic who often works in drag, makes a riveting, dangerous egotist of Chaplin. And Tilly plays Parsons with humor and backbone. Herrmann digs deep into Hearst, going past the megalomania to etch a brave, wounded portrait of a fool for love. Still, the revelation is Dunst; the teen queen of Bring It On and Crazy/Beautiful is showstoppingly good, finding humor, heart and surprising gravity in a character often dismissed as a gold digger. Bogdanovich knows old Hollywood, a place the script describes as “a land just off the coast of planet Earth,” and his rendering of this poignant piece of time shows us how little things have changed.