Movie Review: “The Public” lets libraries offer a Civics Lesson

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“The Public” is premised on a simple fact of modern urban, and even suburban life. Public libraries have become, as writer-director-actor Emilio Estevez has acknowledged, “de facto homeless shelters.”

Senior citizens and cheapskates who prefer to borrow books rather than buy them (like me), school kids who need a safe place to do homework and wait for their parents to get off from work still use them.

Any time you need a laugh, ask any reference librarian, our flesh-and-blood “Google,” what sorts of inane, loony questions they field in a given day.

“I need a color photograph of George Washington.”

“I was reading this book, and I don’t remember the author or the title or the characters’ names, but it was on that shelf over there. Where is it now?”

“What kind of apple did Eve eat?”

But to the homeless, libraries are a sanctuary, a place to spend the day in air conditioned or heated comfort, with clean bathrooms which they wash up in, computers or wifi they can use for free like the rest of us, quiet so they can doze, if left to their own devices.

Couple that necessity with the knowledge that a sizable portion of the homeless population are mentally ill, unstable enough to put others ill at ease or worse, and yet are the last problem government seems ready to wrestle with and you’ve got the makings for a well-constructed if rather ham-fisted drama as American civics lesson.

Estevez stars as Stuart, a librarian in Cincinnati during a late winter cold snap. He knows many of the homeless by name, and they know him. They’re veterans like Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), or chattering, scatterbrained mental patients no longer institutionalized like the mascot of Jackson’s circle, Caesar (Patrick Hume).

“Hail Caesar!” the homeless guys chant after any arcane and typically erroneous “fact” Caesar spouts, like the Tourette’s Edition of Trivial Pursuit.

Jena Malone is a super-progressive underling of Stuart’s, anxious to lose herself in the literature department, Jacob Vargas is the front door security guard (part of a “team,” which I have never seen in any library, no matter how big) and Jeffrey Wright plays the world weary library director trying to keep the peace and hold on to some semblance of the institution’s core mission — a fact delivering, education supplementing bastion of learning, civic responsibility and civility.

That’s one thing “The Public” absolutely nails. As somebody who stops to work in libraries all up and down the Eastern seaboard while I’m on the road, one can’t help but notice the sea change in them, from an oasis of quiet, reflection and literacy to a noisy, cell-phone cluttered cacophony of under-parented kids, senses-dulled seniors and homeless folks on various spectrums who, at any given moment, will disrupt the sanctity of the place and the serenity of the other patrons, who otherwise don’t give them a thought.

Stuart’s got a high tolerance for this. But on the day when he learns the one homeless guy he had turned out for an “offensive odor” could cost him his job, the homeless “get organized” about the lack of shelter space in the city and the frigid cold that is killing them by ones, twos or threes every night they have to spend on the streets.

“Tonight, we occupy!” Jackson jokes. He hasn’t thought this through, at all. And when Stuart and Myra elect to remain with the 70 or so men on the third floor until their grievances are heard, Stuart finds himself becoming their mouthpiece for this “exercise in civil disobedience.”

Alec Baldwin plays the police department’s veteran negotiator with a personal interest in the homeless, Christian Slater is an opportunistic prosecutor running for mayor, anxious to make this problem go away in a way that buttresses his “tough on crime” campaign. And Gabrielle Union is the shallow and equally opportunistic TV reporter on the scene, hyping the drama of this “hostage crisis” as a way of boosting her career.

Taylor Schilling of “Orange is the New Black” is Stuart’s neighbor and apartment building supervisor, where we get a dose of who he really is (and what he and she have in common).

Estevez has built a perfectly workmanlike melodrama, a blend of “John Q” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with a tense agenda-driven police standoff in the Black Lives Matter era and seriously-dated “cute” crazy people.

Rhymefest makes a great impression as the obligatory man mountain among the mentally ill, a soft-spoken gent who makes no eye contact until you can convince him he doesn’t have laser eyes installed at birth “by the government.”

Estevez’s picture loses its urgency even as it never quite loses its away, blending the cornball and the cliched with the preachy (Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is a major subtext) and the odd genuinely funny or touching moment.

Taken with his “Bobby” Kennedy bio-pic and warmly upbeat “The Way,” Estevez is staking out a unique place in not-quite-mainstream cinema, that of an old fashioned civics teacher and a humanist. The best we can hope for him each time out these days is that every film finds enough of an audience to earn him a shot at making another.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, nudity, language, and some suggestive content

Cast: Emilio Estevez, Michael Kenneth Williams, Taylor Schilling, Jeffrey Wright, Alec Baldwin, Gabrielle Union, Christian Slater

Credits: Written and directed by Emilio Estevez. A Universal release.

Running time: 1:59

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