Despite a terrific performance from Leto, this portait of John Lennon's killer is as cinematically adept as surveillance footage

Chapter 27

on March 28, 2008 by Ray Greene
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There have been a number of objections raised against the film Chapter 27, but, as usual when dissent wobbles along the line separating protest from censorship like a drunk taking a sobriety test, they're all the wrong ones. Encouraged by John Lennon's widow Yoko Ono, elements within the still vast and reasonably coordinated Beatle fandom community have been organizing against the picture on the grounds that it “humanizes” Mark David Chapman, the man who assassinated Lennon back in 1980. The word choice is an interesting one (taken in this case from the website boycottchapter27.org, a leader in this “fight”). By taking Chapman's heinous act out of the realm of the human, the protestors are making things easy for the rest of the race in ways the prickly and ruthlessly honest Lennon never did.

The lone-nut monster, inhuman and inexplicable, is a much more consoling assassin than the historical Chapman, who was indeed deranged but also a recognizable if distorted version of the pathological Beatles fan. (Chapman even got Lennon's autograph and was photographed with him by a paparazzo just hours before the murder took place.) The Beatles were the most obsessed-over pop band in the history of music; the stampedes of screaming teenyboppers that accompanied their every public move in the mid-1960s became something of a Beatles “brand,” used not only in the plot of their screen debut A Hard Day's Night but as the credits for the forgotten Saturday morning Beatles cartoon that derived from it. Even the Beatles found the attention menacing, as their authorized and frequently self-pitying TV documentary Beatles Anthology demonstrated again and again.

Chapman wasn't even the first Beatle fanatic to turn homicidal. In the late 1960s, the Manson Family found inspiration for their butcheries in the Beatles' White Album, particularly in the agitated rock song “Helter Skelter,” which they took as a prophecy of coming racial apocalypse. Something about the band's undeniable greatness blended with the tempestuous times they created in to breed unhealthy obsession. The difference between the teenage girls who rioted and achieved spontaneous orgasms at early Beatle concerts and the man who waited outside the Dakota apartment building in 1980 with a gun in his pocket and a brand-new copy of Lennon's Double Fantasy LP in his hand is one of degree, not of kind.

But Chapter 27 barely grazes the skin of that comparison. For all the instant controversy provoked by Ono's understandable discomfort with the project, this is a movie that plays things very, very safe, confining itself to the surface details of Chapman's three days in New York City prior to the killing and never delving for motive or meaning much beyond his well-established secondary fixation on J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye.

It's especially odd that the film seems so distanced from its central character. Chapman is not only in virtually every frame, but the dialogue track is awash in what's supposed to be the killer's inner monologue leading up to the killing. The failure isn't the cast's fault. A bloated-beyond-recognition Jared Leto is remarkable as Chapman, giving a dry performance of eerie and self-contained menace that is surely his best screen work to date, and Lindsay Lohan, who knows more than most about the perils of celebrity, follows her terrific turn in Robert Altman's Prairie Home Companion with an equally assured reading of a radiantly innocent Beatle fan named Jude.

Both actors seem to be sketching in characters they would have played to the hilt in better surroundings, but writer/director Jarrett Schaefer's work is so uninflected that, even when history gives him ideal materials to work with, he seems unaware of it. Lohan's sunny Beatle fan (a real person who met Chapman outside the Dakota and lunched with him on the day of the killing) is the perfect foil to offset Leto's awkward obsessive, but she isn't really used that way. Lohan's Jude is a character in the movie because she showed up in Chapman's story, and Schaefer doesn't feel obligated to do much more with her than to present that fact.

For all the supposed proximity the audience is given to a great and horrible crime, there's nothing intimate or revealing about this portrait of a very disturbed young man. Chapter 27 might as well have been made by a surveillance camera for all the revelation it has to offer, and revelation is the only excuse for making a picture about such a well-known tragedy caused by such a tragically incomplete human being. The protestors who have organized against the film can put down their placards. They will be relieved to learn that the problem with Chapter 27 isn't that it humanizes Mark David Chapman but that it fails to humanize him enough. Distributor: TBD
Cast: Jared Leto, Judah Friedlander and Lindsay Lohan
Director/Screenwriter: Jarrett Schaefer
Producer: Bob Salerno
Genre: Drama
Rating: Not yet rated
Running time: 84 min.
Release date: TBD

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