Back at the dawn of the 1990s, Emilio Estevez wrote and directed Men At Work, a darkly comedic tale about an unsung staple in our social contract, the garbage man. Now, 29 years later, Estevez is back at the helm of another ode to an overlooked, underappreciated institution, the public library.
It starts off innocuously enough, with some mid-century educational footage on the importance of libraries, a veritable hat-tip to the once-beloved institution. It doesn’t take long before the film’s true intention reveals itself, as it flashes forward to the present day, which forces a painfully earnest look at what libraries end up becoming in major American cities: a safe haven for the homeless.
In The Public, the major American city is Cincinnati, which is hit with an arctic blast that sets the stage for the story. Writer-director Emilio Estevez also stars as Stuart Goodson, a formerly homeless drug addict who works at the library, crediting books with saving his life. During his work-a-day routine, he’s come to known the homeless patrons well, and developed a rapport with them over the years.
After finding one of the homeless men frozen to death in the doorway of the library, the rest refuse to leave that night, and Stuart — already on the verge of losing his job — to seal himself in as a form of peaceful protest.
This setting sparks off a number of subplots, including an opportunistic underdog Mayoral candidate, played by Christian Slater, and Alec Baldwin’s grizzled detective who’s been searching for his own son on the streets. Then, there’s the library’s great stalwart, played by Jeffrey Wright, whose views of the institution as the last bastion of true American democracy, which causes his allegiance to shift as the events of the film unfold.
Not every frayed storyline ends up feeling entirely necessary, particularly the ratings-hungry news reporter (Gabrielle Union) who’s bound and determined to sell a peaceful civil protest into a full-blown hostage situation. Coupled with some excessive padding between the second and third act, which fails to keep the story moving in favor of some pointless wheel-spinning that simply adds to an already bloated runtime.
There’s also the token ‘friend on the outside,’ here played by Taylor Schilling, the super from Stuart’s building who goes from stranger to confidant inside of a couple quick scenes. While her character is a necessary component to the story, and Schilling does well with the role, rushing in her backstory and a forced camaraderie was a bit much for a first act setup.
Still, The Public stands out as a reminder that Estevez — now largely out of the public eye, especially when compared to his egregious attention-magnet brother (and Men at Work co-star) Charlie Sheen — has the chops to pull off an effective drama. Even if it is a little middling at times.
The Public is now playing in theaters.