Emilio Estevez wants you to know that he’s woke. In “The Public,” the director-writer-star tackles addiction, mental illness, global warming and, most of all, homelessness, sermonizing about how social systems fail the least fortunate. But although he means well, the film is a clunky and at times ridiculous affair, taking a situation that might reasonably happen and turning it into something melodramatic and ultimately unbelievable.
“The Public” takes place in Cincinnati and begins with a PSA about a career as a librarian, which requires “a love of books and people.” The subtext is homeless people; afterward, there’s a scene of a group of street dwellers waiting for the public library to open. It’s winter, and Cincinnati is experiencing a brutal cold snap. The library is a warm refuge for those who have nowhere else to go.
Stuart (Estevez) is the meek head librarian who credits books with saving his life, so he’s got the love of books part down. He’s also, apparently, fond of people. Though he knows the trouble the homeless can bring — fights in the men’s room, a guy who undresses and starts singing next to the windows — he also knows their names and talks to them like he would any other patron. He’s helped by Myra (Jena Malone), a fellow librarian and activist, who in her first conversation with Stuart chastises him for not taking public transportation or doing much to reduce his carbon footprint; already, the film feels preachy.
One night, the group of homeless in the library refuses to leave. (First the script says it’s 70-plus people, later it changes to over 100.) The local shelters are full, and people have been dying from exposure, so they declare the library an emergency shelter. Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), the leader, tells Stuart that it’s an occupy-type sit-in. He also says, “You’re either one of us, or you’re one of them.”
Stuart decides that he’s one of the good guys and doesn’t try to force them to leave. Almost instantly, the situation escalates: The police somehow find out what’s happening, and it’s deemed a hostage situation despite zero information to indicate it as such. A crisis negotiator (Alec Baldwin) is brought in, and for some reason, city prosecutor and mayoral candidate Josh Davis (Christian Slater) is also there to yell and gesticulate dramatically. Davis first shows up when Stuart is called in by his supervisor (Jeffrey Wright) to be told that the library is being sued by a homeless man whom Stuart and another library employee once threw out because of his body odor. So it’s surprising that Stuart immediately chooses to side with the occupiers, considering his job seems less than stable.
The developments following the initial setup are ludicrous and include the police obtaining a warrant to search Stuart’s apartment, his “demand” that Davis go outside without a jacket and lie down for five minutes (perhaps a reasonable request to make a point, but when Davis does it, Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom’s score suggests wackiness), a love interest (Taylor Schilling) whose only real purpose is to influence the media (represented by Gabrielle Union’s cutthroat news reporter), Stuart quoting “The Grapes of Wrath” at length, and lines such as, “Is it worth throwing your life away for?”
Again, this is a peaceful protest, and the only thing Stuart is guilty of is not clearing the library at closing. (If only someone would clarify this!). Mental illness is treated like something to be laughed at, and the sick are treated with condescension.
As if to make up for a subpar screenplay, Estevez frequently circles his camera around his subjects in an attempt to add flair; he also employs cellphone footage of the sit-in, which at least reflects the zeitgeist. The cast is likewise superficial — the boldface names don’t translate into great performances, with one-dimensional characters not giving the actors much to do besides knit their brows. Malone is especially wasted, being tasked only with serving as the film’s tell-but-not-show mouthpiece. Baldwin has the meatiest role, given a subplot of having an addict son who’s missing, though it’s laughable when the son finally shows up.
“The Public” ends on an unexpected note, albeit an unrealistic one that also comes across as having been written partly for a giggle. At one point, Jackson says, “Ain’t never going to forget what we did here tonight!” Viewers will beg to differ.