In “The Public,” it’s good to see Emilio Estevez back on screen and a public library shown as a still-vital link to intellect and community. But the film itself, which Estevez also wrote and directed, proves an often implausible, stacked deck of social issues, contrived conflicts and feel-good activism.
In Cincinnati during a winter cold snap, a “lovable” group of homeless folks (Michael K. Williams, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Michael Douglas Hall and others) use the city library for warmth and safety by day. And on one extra-freezing night, they decide to peacefully, if illegally, occupy the building after hours.
Caught at the center of what turns into a media, police and political brouhaha is diligent library supervisor Stuart Goodson (Estevez), a recovering alcoholic with a patchy past, who unwittingly becomes the “voice” of the protest.
What could have been a deep and rousing clarion call on the homeless crisis gets supplanted by surface characterizations and situations, us-against-them broadsides and weak story strands involving a police negotiator (Alec Baldwin) with a missing son, a pair of polar-opposite mayoral candidates (Christian Slater, Kelvin Webb), an opportunistic TV reporter (Gabrielle Union) and a lawsuit against the library.
Taylor Schilling and Jena Malone do offer nice support as, respectively, Stuart’s neighbor and co-worker.
Mainly, though, the occupation just doesn’t amount to enough and its “spirited” conclusion feels more pandering than momentous.
Rated: PG-13, for thematic material, nudity, language and some suggestive content
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: Opens Friday in general release