The folks who invited me to the screening of W., director Oliver Stone's George W. Bush biopic, at the Cherry Creek Mall last night, sent out an e-mail ahead of time warning me not to review the flick in advance of its release date -- officially October 17, although my note mistakenly said October 14. However, this memo apparently didn't reach the guy who walked out of the theater behind me as the closing credits were unspooling. Speaking to a companion, he said, "I wish he'd been harder on the prick."
That would have been one option -- and going easier on the prick was another. But Stone, whose bad-boy reputation has mostly been founded on bad movies of late (man, wasn't Alexander great?), chose an unfortunate middle path. He turns Bush and most of those in his orbit into sketch characters, as in a full-on satire, even as he slathers on Freudian subtext that smothers any potential for fun in its cradle. Even the most virulent Bush haters are unlikely to find the results entertaining, and the film is only revelatory in the sense that it incapsulates the worst aspects of liberal filmmaking in one pathetically strained package.
The energy of the early scenes suggests that this misbegotten enterprise might be good for some grins, what with Josh Brolin, as Bush, mugging like a particularly manic Randy Travis through scenes that span more than three decades. Too bad so much of the humor is unintentional. In a frat-house hazing scene dated 1966, for example, Brolin, who's supposed to be on the cusp of his twenties, looks every one of his forty years, making him seem like the Yalie equivalent of Robin Williams in the premature-aging movie Jack.
Unfortunately, though, what might laughingly be called the dramatic arc of writer Stanley Weiser's script soon raises the price on such cheap pleasures. The narrative traces Bush's evolution from a directionless, hard-partying ne'er-do-well to a born-again zealot with an overgrown child's proclivity for viewing situations in black and white terms, as opposed to recognizing shades of gray. In other words, he goes from being one kind of an idiot to another -- a transition that's both dramatically unsatisfying and distressingly one-dimensional.
This problem is exacerbated by a collage structure based upon what might be called Bush's Greatest Hits. We see him choke on a pretzel for no apparent reason. We hear him refer to himself as "the decider" during a lunchtime conversation, not in a press conference. Such moments are supposed to produce whoops of recognition from the audience, and a few members of the crowd at Cherry Creek responded in kind. But the impact of this button-pushing is muted by long, stagey, claustrophobic back-and-forths between Bush and his advisors, most of whom have been portrayed with greater depth on Saturday Night Live.
Richard Dreyfuss does a Mini-Me version of Dick Cheney, with any sense of gravitas or danger minimized as well (the same goes for Toby Jones' Karl Rove). Scott Glenn turns Donald Rumsfeld into the Nutty Professor. The Daily Show veteran Rob Corddry seems afraid to crack a smile as Ari Fleischer. And Jeffrey Wright plays Colin Powell as good-hearted but ineffectual and impotent, even when tossing out a random "Fuck you" by way of deflecting the notion that he ruined his own chances for becoming president. As for Thandie Newton, she'll be living down her ludicrously pinched, nasal-voiced Condoleezza Rice for the rest of her career. Good luck with that. Only Elizabeth Banks, as a hotter-than-the-real-thing Laura Bush, and James Cromwell, who gives more depth to George H.W. Bush than anyone might have expected, escape without fresh bruises to their reputation.
Still, the biggest problems with W. all come back to Stone's muddled instincts. He doesn't want to turn the project into a 21st century Dr. Strangelove for fear of confirming all the darkest suspicions of the Bill O'Reilly crowd, even though that might have been the only way to make the project work. But neither is he willing to go into the faux-Shakespearean mode that made Nixon, his other presidential biography, such a dreary failure. So he tries to do both simultaneously, to predictably dismal effect.
Not that there was much of a chance for success in the first place. Stone has been denying that he wanted W. in theaters before November 4 because he wanted to have an impact on this year's election since at least an Entertainment Weekly cover story from earlier this year. Still, that's clearly the goal -- and if this movie had even a ghost of a chance to become a hit, it'd backfire in that respect big time. But the film is destined to generate more ink than ticket-buyers, and that's appropriate. W. doesn't tell us anything more about George W. Bush than the average Jay Leno or David Letterman monologue -- and without nearly as many chuckles. -- Michael Roberts