WHEN he was 11 years old, Richard Attenborough saw Charles Chaplin's classic "The Gold Rush" in London, and it changed his life forever. "I think it was at that moment that I wanted to become an actor," he says in the publicity for "Chaplin," his film biography of the great comedian. "I couldn't believe that a man could make you laugh and cry at the same moment."
Mr. Attenborough did become an actor, and in his best moments on the screen - in a rousing musical number from "Doctor Doolittle," for instance - you may see traces of Chaplin's influence on his work.
Attenborough also became a filmmaker, and here too Chaplin may have influenced him, since like Chaplin he seems determined not only to entertain the world but to improve it. Attenborough movies like "Gandhi," about the great Indian pacifist, and "Cry Freedom," about the fight against apartheid in South Africa, have political as well as dramatic and cinematic goals - as did such Chaplin pictures as "Monsieur Verdoux," "The Great Dictator," and "A King in New York."
Attenborough is no Chaplin, however, despite the inspiration he may have drawn from him. Among his many other virtues, Chaplin was above all a master of mood and emotion, able to flesh out a simple story with such rich feelings - often blending deep sadness and high hilarity into a seamless whole, as Attenborough rightly notes - that a virtual universe of comedy and tragedy could seem concentrated in the simplest of his stories.
By contrast, Attenborough is an oddly mechanical filmmaker, good at logistics but lacking in the warmth and sensitivity that any true artist needs. Most of "Chaplin" is typical Attenborough cinema: crisp, carefully planned out, and far less touching than it ought to be.
Chaplin's actual life was uncommonly active and complicated. He grew up in a troubled household, achieved early fame as a music-hall performer, entered the movies when they were still a fledgling art, and personally manufactured the image that made him perhaps the most widely renowned star who ever lived.
He also stirred controversy with his multiple marriages and his predilection for very young women, and fought a bitter battle with the United States government over his leftist political views. A more dramatic subject for a Hollywood bio-pic would be hard to find - which makes it all the more regrettable that "Chaplin" has been stitched together with more attention to superficial dramatics than to the fascinating complexities and contradictions that ran through the great artist's life and work.
True to form, Attenborough has crowded the screen with terrific performers. Chief among them is Robert Downey, Jr., whose consistently skilled and hearty portrayal of Chaplin lends a needed center of gravity to the picture.
In the supporting cast, Geraldine Chaplin plays her own grandmother, struggling to raise her children amid poverty and insanity.
Anthony Hopkins plays a biographer whose interviews with Chaplin provide the movie's basic framework.
James Woods plays a lawyer who prosecutes Chaplin in a highly publicized paternity suit.
Kevin Kline has lowdown fun as Douglas Fairbanks, one of Chaplin's best friends. Marisa Tomei plays Mabel Normand, the silent-movie actress and director. Moira Kelly plays both Hetty Kelly, the first love of Chaplin's life, and Oona O'Neill, the last of his wives. Also on hand are Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard, Penelope Ann Miller as Edna Purviance, and Dan Aykroyd as silent-comedy innovator Mack Sennett.
That's plenty of attractive folks to watch, but the movie doesn't let any of them do very much. They arrive on-screen, play their little part in Chaplin's life, and promptly vanish again, never allowing us to get tangled in their feelings or interested in their affairs.
The only character we have a long-lasting relationship with is Chaplin himself, and even the talented Mr. Downey can't carry all the movie's emotional weight on his shoulders alone. Along with Attenborough's rather clockwork directing style, this lack of fully rounded characterizations is a chief reason for the film's failure to make its subject as compelling as one would have expected.
"Chaplin" was written by William Boyd, Bryan Forbes, and William Goldman - three veteran screenwriters with lots of experience behind them - from a story by Diana Hawkins based on David Robinson's biography of Chaplin and the star's own autobiography. Perhaps the efforts of so many writers collided with each other and played an additional part in depriving the movie of emotional momentum. The cinematography is by Swedish master Sven Nykvist, and Stuart Craig designed the elaborate production. Along with composer John Barry, film editor Anne V. Coates, and the rest of the crew, they have done their jobs capably. But their efforts don't add up to a brilliance worthy of the Chaplin legacy.
* "Chaplin" is rated PG-13 for nudity and vulgar language; there is also discussion of sexual matters and other adult content.