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Why Are Audiences Laughing at 'J. Edgar?'


There’s something great about sitting down to a see an oh, so serious film and laughing at its ineptness. Sure, you lost a good $10 on the ticket, but it’s cathartic to laugh through the pain.

Consider M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” as a perfect example.

J Edgar Leonardo DiCaprio

This critic heard similarly unplanned guffaws during a recent screening of “J. Edgar,” director Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the blustery FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The crowd wasn’t reacting to a clumsily delivered phrase or illogical event. They smirked over sequences in which Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a fellow agent (played by Armie Hammer) stopped talking business.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one to hear that kind of laughter.

Orlando Sentinel film critic Roger Moore heard the same thing while watching “J. Edgar,” which he notes in his less than flattering review.

“…a film that provokes more inappropriate laughter than any mainstream period piece since Oliver Stone’s “Alexander.”

So why are audiences laughing during a sober treatise on a complicated historical figure? Perhaps you can blame the milquetoast approach to the material. It’s clear the filmmakers want us to know Hoover and his trusted aide were lovers, but the historical record is just fuzzy enough for them not to fully commit to that narrative.

So audiences are left to wonder about every moist glance and flirty exchange, scouring them for clues as to their real relationship. It’s the elephant up on the big screen, and the film doesn’t really want to talk about it.

That makes audiences nervous, and laughter is often the best way to defuse those tensions.

“J. Edgar” isn’t the only recent film with a romantic gay storyline. Audiences lines up to see “Brokeback Mountain,” and if there was any chuckling in the crowd it was probably modest.

Eastwood and “J. Edgar” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black walked a cultural tightrope in bringing Hoover’s story to the screen. But by tip-toeing around their own movie they put ticket holders in an uncomfortable position.

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