“I hate the movies. They’re phony, so goddamned phony.” Poor Mark David Chapman: no matter how many times he rejects the world of celebrity and phoniness, he’s dragged back inside. This time, in Chapter 27, he’s played by Jared Leto (beneath 60 extra pounds of serious-acting weight) and again unknowable. Standing outside the Dakota in December 1980, he’s met a fellow Beatles fan, the astoundingly named Jude (Lindsay Lohan). But much as he sidles near her, seeming to want contact with someone who smiles at him and shares John Lennon gossip, he draws the line at going to the movies with her. Because, you know, he hates them.
It’s established by now that Chapman, at the time of his crime, was full of contradictions, yearning to be like and pay tribute to Holden Caulfield, obsessed with and repelled by “phonies,” seeking fame by killing the most famous man in the world. Confused and profoundly vulnerable, in J.P. Schaefer’s film he is also calculating and judgmental, determined to forge order out of his own psychic and emotional chaos. His resolve inspired by a fictional character, Chapman’s insanity is here plain and not quite harrowing: he rides into the city in a cab, his profile set in deep, dark close-up as he worries out loud about the ducks Holden worried about; in a cozy bookstore, he discovers the Wizard of Oz postcard he will leave so ominously in his hotel room dresser. Every moment, every look, every brief interaction is here weighted with intent and possible meaning.
The hitch is what’s “possible.” Chapman’s interviews with crime journalist Jack Jones (published in 1992) don’t necessarily articulate his motives or, more intriguingly, his significance (this much was demonstrated in 2006’s The Killing of John Lennon). This even as his most notorious bits of confession and self-exploration invite efforts to parse. If you can’t ever comprehend his motives, maybe you can get at how he is representative of a broader angst and turmoil, an attempt to stop the ongoing onslaught of all-consuming consumer culture. As Chapman appears both idealistic and out of touch, he seems a neat emblem of hope and hopelessness. “I believe in Holden Caulfield,” Chapman announces at the start of Chapter 27. “And the book. And what it was saying, what it was saying to a lost generation of phony people.”
If this Chapman doesn’t quite embody such a “generation,” he does speak to and out of it, insistently. His plan to write an additional, 27th chapter to The Catcher in the Rye is more or less realized in the murder, a connection the movie pounds home with a fantastical boy who sings the rhyme Holden so loved (“If a body catch a body…”): Chapman spots the kid on the sidewalk and then recalls him, in slow motion, as a sign of his self-immersion as well as his delusion that he will be a “catcher,” saving children from phonies and other monsters.
Still, the film seems stuck in first gear, grinding through the obvious (the child on the sidewalk) or the banal: Chapman hires a prostitute for his last night (“I’m not a weirdo,” he tells her, “I wanted to be in the company of a woman tonight”), speaks on the phone with his uncomprehending wife back in Hawaii. Increasingly irritated by the New York that tends to irritate psychopaths in the movies (he hears a man berating a woman on the sidewalk, he reviles and listens to a gay couple in the room next to his in the YMCA), Chapman sounds like a caricature (“I’m too vulnerable for a world full of pain and lies,” he asserts in voiceover/interview snippet, his TV looming odious and staticky behind him).
Gesturing toward suspense though its end is foregone, the film offers Jude as Chapman’s unlikely lifeline. But their several interactions are excruciating, partly because she’s Lindsay Lohan, now (two years after filming) unable to fade into a role that requires her anonymity, and partly because the fantasy she embodies is so extensive. First, Jude’s an unlikely city girl, engaging in conversation with a lonely, lumpy, obviously angry man (much to the visible impatience of her friend Jeri [Ursula Abbott]). Second, she provides access to supporting figures and symbols, the photographer Paul (Judah Friedlander) and even John and Yoko’s young son Sean (an adorable child introduced with his nanny, who takes an instant dislike to Chapman). When at last Jude notes Chapman’s strangeness, following several rants about phoniness, ambition, and aspiration she scurries away through the park, her retreating figure suggesting the loss of the exceedingly creepy Chapman’s potential connection with someone, even if she is as unreal and “phony” as the emblem he means to murder.
In losing her, both Chapman and the film lose energy. As Jude incarnates Chapman’s dream of his inevitable abandonment, he’s left with his misapprehension and disappointment. The film doesn’t consider how the gun works in his delusion, his familial background, his vexed relation to conventional masculinity or resentment against expectations. Instead, it returns to Chapman’s own words, as opaque as they may be. On the morning of December 8, he says in voiceover, “Everything had changed, it just felt different. And I knew, I knew in my bones I would never see my hotel room again.” And so he arranges his own belongings — a bible with a page amended to read “The Gospel According to John Lennon” and his Wizard of Oz postcard — left behind to help “the police or whoever it was going to be [understand] what everyone would want to know, who I was, who I had become.”
The unsurprising punchline for Chapter 27 is that he can’t know what he’s become. He heads out with his weapon and his copy of Catcher in the Rye. “The paragraphs and sentences of that book were flowing through my brain,” he says. Still, his own Chapter 27 remains unwritten. An artist without art, he imagines he should be “remembered,” succumbing to the force of celebrity after all.