This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Charlie Chaplin won his immortality through hard work. He was perfectly willing to spend hours or days on one shot or gag until he had it exactly right. He won his fame by reinventing himself as a universal character: Before Batman, before Mickey Mouse, there was the Little Tramp, an everyman whose lack of name and address allowed him to go anywhere and do anything, as long as it was funny, or brought a tear.
If you want to learn about this Chaplin, you can look at his films, which are available in fairly good condition on home video, and in superb condition on a new set of laserdiscs being issued by Fox. If you want to read about him, Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns has never been bettered on the subject of silent comedy, and he goes into great detail about the mechanics of Chaplin's art, about how meticulously he engineered those seemingly evanescent moments.
The last place to look is Chaplin's autobiography, in which he displays all the cunning of an old magician still protecting his secrets. Chaplin wrote as a man who wanted the world to view his films from the outside, as finished products. He was not interested in discussing how he made them. He was also not that interested in revealing the secrets of the various marriages, romances and scandals which figured in his life, but that is a lack that Richard Attenborough is willing to compensate for in "Chaplin," a film that leaves you wondering why anyone would want to make a film about its subject.
This is a disappointing, misguided movie that has all of the parts in place to be a much better one. Robert Downey Jr. succeeds almost uncannily in playing Chaplin; the physical resemblance is convincing, but better is the way Downey captures Chaplin's spirit, even in costume as the Tramp. The production values are impressive, the period sets are meticulously convincing, the supporting actors are generally very good, especially Geraldine Chaplin, playing her own grandmother; Kevin Kline, as Douglas Fairbanks, and James Woods, as Chaplin's attorney.