The greatest film ever to take place in or about the public library system is Frederick Wiseman’s Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library (2017). However, not every filmmaker is given 4 hours to examine such an institute from every angle, be it geo-political or cultural, or even allowing the viewer to soak in the cavernous silence of such a splendid monument. Of course, this is coming from a bibliophile whose daily routine consists of being surrounded by books and media when not moonlighting as a film critic (and valuing words even more).
Others may find the library dull, antiquated, or, worse of all, inconsequential. With The Public, actor-turned-director Emilio Estevez’s latest film, the library is not only deemed relevant, but it’s situated as the last socially responsible bastion in a city too uncaring towards its citizens and too enamored with splashy lawsuits and a mayoral race to notice its deficiencies otherwise. It makes the library — dare I say — sexy in its libertine morals and revolutionary tactics after it becomes the center of attention when a group of homeless people (led by the always watchable Michael Kenneth Williams) stage a sit-in and refuse to leave one blustery cold evening.
Caught up in the melee is the library’s director, Stuart (Estevez himself) and co-worker Myra (a feisty and wonderful Jena Malone), whose allegiance to the institution slowly shift towards that of the homeless, many of whom have been using the library as a daily home of knowledge, camaraderie and simple body warmth for years.
In fact, the subtle and friendly protest comes along like a welcome reverie while Stuart finds himself embroiled in a legal battle with high-profile attorney Josh Davis (Christian Slater) after being sued for asking a library patron to leave due to numerous body odor complaints. Dealing with the homeless seems like a vacation after enduring Davis’ brisk interrogation towards the beginning of the film.
And subtle/friendly is the perfect description of The Public. Even after the protest goes viral and the local police take over, led by no-nonsense lead detective Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin), the stakes are never quite that high. Estevez maintains a fairly light-hearted tone even if the social sanctions become a tad too much towards the end. Just to ensure the social servitude is not missed, the film breaks out a direct quote from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Quietly directing films since the mid 80’s with Wisdom (1986) and Men At Work (1990), Estevez’s latest entry is competent but largely ordinary. Filled to the brim with just enough backstories to neatly shade everyone with moral ambivalence — such as the connection Baldwin’s policeman has with someone inside the library and the idiosyncratic personalities donned to a few of the homeless men — there’s nothing extremely challenging about the The Public. It stays in a crowd-pleasing lane and never falters from its course. It’s no four-hour examination, but few things rarely are.
The Public opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, April 5.