“THE PUBLIC” — 2½ stars — Emilio Estevez, Alec Baldwin, Gabrielle Union, Michael Kenneth Williams, Christian Slater, Jena Malone; PG-13 (thematic material, nudity, language and some suggestive content); in general release; running time: 119 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Emilio Estevez’s “The Public” is long on good intent, but a little short on execution.
Inspired by the experiences of former Salt Lake City Public Library deputy director Chip Ward — which were published in an LA Times article in 2007 — “The Public” tells the story of a librarian-led standoff with police after a group of homeless people take shelter in a Cincinnati library.
Estevez wrote and directed the film, and also stars as Stuart Goodson, a humble librarian and recovering addict who has an intimate understanding of homelessness.
As the film opens, a homeless man who was asked to leave the premises after numerous patron complaints is suing Goodson’s library. Goodson himself has a reputation for accommodating large numbers of local homeless, who spend their daytime hours at the library, and the board of trustees is trying to find a way to remove the librarian.
Things come to a head during a record cold stretch when a large group of homeless men, led by regular Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), decides to “occupy” the library overnight, insisting all the local shelters are full. Caught in the middle of an escalating situation, Goodson eventually decides to stick it out with his patrons and becomes the focal point of a standoff with authorities.
Influences outside the library exacerbate what would otherwise be considered a peaceful protest. City prosecutor and mayoral candidate Josh Davis (Christian Slater) is determined to resolve the situation quickly — even if he has to paint Goodson as a hostage-taking threat to do so. Newswoman Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union) is happy to play along, more interested in her social media following than getting the truth of her story.
Other characters are more on the fence, such as crisis negotiator Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) — whose opiate-addicted son might be among the library’s occupiers — and Goodson’s supervisor Anderson (Jeffrey Wright), who is torn between his responsibilities to the library administrators and its patrons.
There are some good elements in place here, and the all-star cast — which also features Jena Malone as one of Goodson’s employees and Taylor Schilling as Goodson’s building manager/love interest — pulls out all the stops. Certain moments are very poignant, and it’s hard to watch the film without thinking hard about the serious issues it’s addressing.
At the same time, “The Public” suffers from a script that doesn’t always make sense as it goes from point A to point B, and the film has a tendency to be more interested in snappy comebacks and snarky comeuppance that often make it feel more preachy than persuasive. (And for a setting that is supposedly enduring record cold temperatures in the Midwest, the characters outside the library seem way too comfortable.)
The sum total, then, works better at arm’s length than up close, striving but not managing to capture the true suffering and complexity of the homeless population. With a little more refinement, “The Public” might have been the kind of memorable movie it clearly aspires to be.
Rating explained: “The Public” is rated PG-13 for intermittent profanity, including a use of the F-word, and an excess of male rear nudity (presented as a joke).