Emilio Estevez is the kind of actor with certain limited skills who needs significant guidance and/or the Mighty Ducks to bring out his strengths. Getting the job done himself hasn’t proved a winning formula, yet for the past decade — with the exception of some vocal work and a cameo on his brother Charlie Sheen’s show “Two and a Half Men” — he’s exclusively performed under his own direction.
That dubious approach continues with The Public, a well-meaning film about the relevance of public libraries and their advocacy of marginalized people that’s a little too folksy and loose for its own good.
Set and filmed in majestic Cincinnati, the work echoes Estevez’s sprawling RFK drama Bobby with its large cast of famous faces, and again the lofty number of moving parts keeps the pace active, lessening the blow of the material’s frequent clunkiness.
With the writer/director/star’s crusading librarian Stuart at its core, The Public spins off a host of characters within the downtown branch, accurately capturing such nuances of the profession as fielding patrons’ bizarre questions and dealing with the homeless and mentally challenged.
Minus sufficient build-up, homeless spokesman Jackson (Michael K. Williams) simultaneously reveals to Stuart the lack of available shelters during the current cold spell and his contingency’s decision to occupy the library for the night, actions into which Stuart is immediately swept and that play to the outside world like a hostage situation.
In response to the impromptu haven, the behavior of a ladder-climbing TV newswoman (Gabrielle Union), a prosecutor (Christian Slater) with mayoral ambitions, and a police negotiator (Alec Baldwin) with a potential personal stake in the matter feel exaggerated, but also accurately portray the general population’s disconnect with public libraries, the services they provide, and the groups they serve.
The path that Stuart and the patrons to whom he’s devoted take yields its share of humor and heart, yet Estevez never quite knows what message he wants to send beyond a heightened wake-up call for the film’s real-life analogs. As such, The Public succeeds in raising awareness, but as a satisfying moviegoing experience, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a dogeared book whose borrower has racked up an embarrassing amount of late fees.
Grade: C-plus. Rated PG-13. Starts April 12 at the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photo: Greenwich Entertainment)