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The Independent Critic

Jena Malone, Taylor Schilling, Christian Slater, Emilio Estevez, Alec Baldwin, Michael K. Williams, Gabrielle Union, Jeffrey Wright
Emilio Estevez
Rated PG-13
122 Mins.
Greenwich Entertainment/Universal Pictures

 "The Public" Has Its Heart in the Right Place 

There's never any question that writer/director Emilio Estevez has his heart in the right place with his latest film, The Public, the moving portrayal of an act of civil disobedience that escalates into a stand-off with police and library officials when a conscientious librarian turns the Cincinnati Public Library into an impromptu homeless shelter for one night during the most brutal cold snap in recent city history. 

Being the son of Martin Sheen, there's no question that Estevez has social justice in his blood and that heart and intelligence for doing what's right shines through in The Public which had its world premiere at last year's TIFF and now heads to theaters in a limited indie release. The Public takes place in downtown Cincy's branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, a library frequented by the city's homeless population and who are left without options when a severe cold front slams the city and all the shelters are at capacity. 

Sensing what's unfolding, Stuart Goodson (Estevez) makes the decision to side with the library's homeless patrons much to the dismay of his supervisor (Jeffrey Wright) and the library's board. The situation gets escalated further when Alec Baldwin's Det. Bill Ramsted arrives on the scene and ambitious county prosecutor turned mayor candidate Josh Davis (Christian Slater) soon follows. Of course, the media shows up ready to tell the story, accurate or not, as personified by Gabrielle Union's Rebecca Parks. Parks's ambition isn't afraid to exploit some folks along the way to a great story with Stuart's co-worker Myra (Jena Malone) and building manager (Taylor Schilling) mostly being the ones in her crosshairs. 

If you sense a rather formulaic, do-gooder type of film unfolding you're for the most part absolutely correct. Based upon a 2007 story by Chip Ward, The Public's primary ambition is to tell a meaningful story and Estevez doesn't shoot much higher here. For the most part, he succeeds though he's packed the film with a few too many characters and a little too much distraction along the way. It gets way more "cutesie" than it needs to get, though much to Estevez's credit it also never loses focus on its primary concern - the shabby ways in which those who are homeless are treated by city officials, community leaders, bureaucrats, and those whose primary concern is the bottom line. 

That includes you and I. 

Estevez has assembled a quality ensemble cast here, though one can't help but feel like he's given them B-grade material to work with for much of The Public's just over two hour running time. For all the concerns about those who are homeless, far too often The Public casts key figures like Big George (Che "Rhymefest" Smith) and Jackson (Michael K. Williams) to the side. There's little questioning Estevez's sincerity here, but too much of The Public plays out like a vanity project with Estevez front-and-center in a film that's not supposed to be about him. 

Lensing by Juan Miguel Azpiroz seems to going for an authentic, doc-style impact, though the approach is mostly ineffective and occasionally crosses the line into condescension. 

The Public certainly means well, though all is not well with The Public. The best of intentions can't compensate for an overwrought story that never feels real and never quite comes to life in a way that makes you sympathize with anyone in the film. Ultimately, The Public tells a meaningful story but does so in a way that largely dilutes its meaning. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic