For an entire generation, the death of John Lennon resonates more clearly than the assassination of President Kennedy or the suicide of Kurt Cobain. As the peace and politics voice of arguably the most important musical act of the 20th century - The Beatles - the iconic man with the sad/sweet gaze paid a substantial price for his undeniable megafame. While returning to his home in New York’s swanky Dakota building on a December evening, a mentally unbalanced young man named Mark David Chapman pumped five bullets into his back. As he lay bleeding, a ruptured aorta sealing his fate, his killer pulled out a copy of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, silently reading until the police came.
Chapter 27, the long delayed indie film dramatization of these events, proposes to be a character study of Chapman, a look inside the scattered, soured mind that decided that John Lennon must die. It also features one of those notorious star stunt turns, a DeNiro/Raging Bull, Theron/Monster physical transformation by pretty boy emo band member Jared Leto. Packing on 60 pounds of purposeful bloat, and diving Method like into Chapman’s baffling brain (thanks, in part, to taped interviews that formed the basis of the film’s inspiration, the book Let Me Take You Down by Jack Jones), our lead wants to create a gripping portrait of insanity unleashed. Part of the time he’s semi successful. At other moments, it’s the same old schizo song and dance.
As the first feature from filmmaker J.P. Schaefer, there is a determined effort to make Chapman’s tale parallel the events as played out in Salinger’s book. The main plot point travails of adolescent antihero Holden Caufield - trip to New York, a night with a hooker, the ducks in Central Park - are intertwined with Chapman’s own obsessions to form one part of an intriguing paradigm. What drives a supposedly ‘normal’ person to destroy that which they admire requires an intricate, complex dissection, however. All Schaefer gives us are nonsensical pronouncements from a clearly sick mind. The use of Jones’ book offers its own limits, since it can’t give us the analysis necessary to figure out Chapman’s malfunction. It’s like listening to bad poetry from depressed tweens - not the ravings of the fatal lunatic fringe.
And then there is Leto’s performance. He doesn’t really play a character. Instead, he’s the physicality of Chapman fused with tired, tic-laden theatrics. It’s more like an animatronic version of the notorious madman than a flesh and blood portrait. It’s not just that Leto is restricted in what he can bring to the role. The script constantly shuffles him over into nutjob mode without ever allowing us to see the real Chapman inside (if one truly existed). Constantly being “on” renders much of Chapter 27 redundant. When we see our lead lumbering toward Lindsay Lohan (playing a ubiquitous fan named Jude), we just know their conversations are going nowhere. A last act confrontation with a photographer essayed by Judah Friedlander is equally anticlimactic.
No, Chapter 27 wants this entire experience to be one long Catcher tinged internal monologue, and Leto’s ersatz lisping narration (he is affecting an odd Southern drawl here) can grow grating at times. But because of the setting, the seedy back alley way in which Chapman went about his business, and the exterior element of a very public protest (the movie has been shelved since its 2007 Sundance debut for lack of a willing distributor), the film contains a morbid curiosity that can’t be helped. Call it a bow to our current tabloid mentality, but with his eerie resemblance to the famed shooter, Leto keeps our attention - at least until he starts rambling like a fool to any cab driver who will listen.
Schaefer is also his own worst enemy when it comes to directorial flourishes. First, he makes the big mistake of announcing Chapman and his intentions right up front. We get several foreboding flash forwards to the events that will lead to Lennon’s death. Had he hidden the fact that he was dealing with The Beatles’ infamous killer, and let the three day ordeal unravel organically, we’d have a much better dramatic arc. Similarly, by leaving the victim almost completely out of the picture (surely for legal and music catalog copyright reasons), we never feel Chapman’s fascination. The link to Catcher in the Rye is remote, and the voice over explanations ambiguous at best.
In fact, the real problems with Chapter 27 is it vagueness. Everyone here - Leto, Lohan, Friedlander - leaves us in the lurch, and nothing Schaefer does can save our confusion. While it may sound sick to say so, there is an innate allure to this story. We want to understand what happened, to get some insight into why this lowly schlub would take his failed ego fascinations out on a social symbol of a man. It remains the most captivating aspects of the assassin’s tale - and it’s the part that’s definitely missing here. To call Chapter 27 a failure would be a mistake. To call it worthy of the tragedy involved or the figure lost is also extremely shortsighted. Somewhere in the middle lies this less than impressive film.