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Film review: Chaplin portrait full of fine footage

But documentary is talk-heavy and a little too long

Published: Friday, March 19 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

CHARLIE: THE LIFE AND ART OF CHARLES CHAPLIN — *** — Documentary about Charlie Chaplin; narrated by Sydney Pollack; in black and white and in color; not rated, probable PG (slapstick violence, nude artwork).

There are times when the narrator and interviewees of "Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin" should simply shut up and let the audience enjoy the images.

After all, "Charlie" is a documentary about Charlie Chaplin, whose comedies are still marvelous and still hilarious, nearly a century after they were originally released.

This talk-heavy documentary is perhaps too all-inclusive for its own good, with quite a few lengthy and sometimes redundant interviews with Chaplin experts, biographers, actors (Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr.) and filmmakers (Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Richard Attenborough) — all of whom chime in with their particular opinions about his greatness.

Still, it's hard to argue with any film that features so much footage of Chaplin at his best (the makers of this documentary had access to a treasure-trove of rarely seen and remastered Chaplin material).

"Charlie" attempts to get inside the head of its subject, to show what inspired him and to document (where possible) his process in making some of his most famous works. It also tries to be a portrait of Chaplin the man, including warts-and-all discussions of his many dalliances with female co-stars and his (in some cases short-lived) marriages.

Considering that his "day job" is film criticism (for Time magazine), filmmaker Richard Schickel probably should have known to keep this documentary under two hours. After awhile, all the pontification starts to become wearisome (particularly Scorsese's rambling discourses). But it is wonderful to see so many classic Chaplin routines again. You may wish this was nothing more than an extended highlight reel.

"Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin" is not rated but would probably receive a PG for scenes of slapstick violence (pratfalls and the like), glimpses of some nude artwork and some adult themes (including discussions of marital infidelity). Running time: 132 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com