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Review: Emilio Estevez’s ‘The Public’ buries serious issues under messy dramatics

Review: Emilio Estevez’s ‘The Public’ buries serious issues under messy dramatics
Emilio Estevez, left, directs and stars as Stuart Goodson in the new drama "The Public." (Brian Douglas / Universal Pictures Content Group)

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.

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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.

Gabrielle Union, left, is Rebecca Parks and Taylor Schilling plays Angela in "The Public."
Gabrielle Union, left, is Rebecca Parks and Taylor Schilling plays Angela in "The Public." (Brian Douglas / Universal Pictures Content Group)

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'The Public'

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

Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes

Playing: Opens Friday in general release

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