The Public should not work. It’s an ever-so-earnest tale of people standing together against the moustache-twirling evil of the Establishment, in which a character says with complete seriousness that “books saved my life”. However, with the tender influence of writer-director-star Emilio Estevez on both sides of the camera, it emerges as something warm, smart and shamelessly uplifting.
Estevez portrays the wholesome Cincinnati librarian Stuart Goodson, who has a close bond with the homeless patrons who frequently seek warmth, shelter and friendliness within the library building – referred to simply as The Public. After a lawsuit is brought against him with the help of slimy prosecutor-turned-mayoral-candidate Josh Davis (Christian Slater), Goodson is on the verge of getting the sack. His employment prospects are not helped when rough sleeper Jackson (Michael K. Williams) informs him that he and his fellow homeless folk plan to occupy the library overnight, in the wake of several deaths in the homeless community due to a cold snap in the city.
The Public ultimately becomes exactly the movie it seems it is going to be, with Goodson and his homeless friends positioned against Slater’s enjoyably serpentine suit – he’s a fan of “heavy” cologne – and Alec Baldwin as a cop who alternates between reasonable and bloodthirsty as the plot requires. This is a world of archetypes, designed to make its hefty, didactic point about how we treat vulnerable people, without much room for subtlety or nuance.
The first third of the movie, though, is something different. It’s a pleasantly breezy, quippy drama about the chaos of a public library. There’s talk about “Johnny Steinbeck” being staff member Jena Malone’s “tenth grade crush” and a clueless patron querying why she can’t find a “life-size globe of the Earth” to study. Estevez’s script is at its strongest in these scenes, sketching a sort of mundane stupidity that brings the laughs in a cosy way.
Estevez’s central performance also holds things together when the machinations of the plot become broader and more absurd. He’s completely believable as the mild-mannered man pushed into rebellion, complete with a back-story that sheds more light on his affection for those less fortunate than himself. His gentility in front of the camera also transfers behind it, giving the movie a palpable core of warmth and sensitivity that allows it to get away with its occasionally slushy material.
Not everything works. The two-hour running time is largely unnecessary, with a couple of narrative screws begging to be tightened, and the characterisation of journalists – as personified by Gabrielle Union’s vapid presenter – as sociopathic parasites is a disappointing swipe at an all-too-easy target. Taylor Schilling, too, feels a little tossed aside as the building manager for Estevez’s apartment, who becomes a romantic interest.
But there’s no doubting the soaring quality of The Public‘s emotional beats, even if they’re mostly founded on picking the low-hanging fruit of schmaltz. Estevez, keeping just about every plate spinning here, deserves all of the credit in the world for the impressive work that has emerged. His sensitive, perceptive and thoughtful approach ensures that, while this film isn’t a hammer blow to the heart of society, it certainly makes its worthy voice heard.
Dir: Emilio Estevez
Scr: Emilio Estevez
Cast: Emilio Estevez, Michael K. Williams, Jena Malone, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Taylor Schilling, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Jacob Vargas
Prd: Emilio Estevez, Alex Lebovici, Lisa Niedenthal, Steve Ponce
DOP: Juan Miguel Azpiroz
Music: Tyler Bates, Joanne Higginbottom
Run time: 119 mins
The Public is in UK cinemas from 21st February.