Did it take Sarah Palin to make George W. Bush look human? Or is it just the way Josh Brolin plays him like Homer J. Simpson fumbling into a Marlboro Man pose? Either way, Oliver Stone's W. is bizarrely affecting. The movie opens as the President and his chorus of accomplices -- including Richard Dreyfuss's Cheney, Thandie Newton's Condoleezza Rice, Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell and Scott Glenn's Rumsfeld -- brainstorm the "Axis of Evil" tag while Lincoln glares down from an Oval Office painting. As W. calls it a day and gets his cabinet to join him on bended knee for prayer, Stone's odd tone, a sort of caring rather than lacerating burlesque, is set. The director's oeuvre is full of storming overreachers fueled by private wounds and societal tensions, though his latest subject barely has enough complexity in him to fill a whisky flask, let alone an Alexander the Great or a Nixon. Instead of fabricating pseudo-profundities for the man, however, Stone interestingly rolls with Bush's jackass simplicity and analyzes it as both his appeal and his downfall. The young Bush, introduced at a booze-soaked Yale hazing, is a galumphing Hud, downing drunks and chasing ass (an early scene re-teams Brolin with Marley Shelton, his Planet Terror co-star -- imagine what the frantic, free-associating Stone of the mid-1990s would have made of this link). Party-hardy W. has troubles, namely the elongated oedipal shadow cast by the patrician Bush Senior (James Cromwell). He drunkenly crashes his car through Poppy's gate to show him his acceptance letter into business school. "Of course," the old man responds. "Who do you think pulled the strings?" And so begins the road to the White House.
W. doesn't stint on dopey Bushisms. "Mission accomplished," the choking pretzel, "Is our children learning?" all make appearances, yet Stone knows that at this hour simply going through index cards of presidential imbecility and shouting a Nelson Muntz-like "Haw-haw!" at audiences is a bit useless. Brolin's W. complains that thinking hurts his brain and concludes a discussion on interrogation tactics with a Butt-Head snicker ("Like pulling out toenails? Uh huh huh huh!"), but he's not so much evil as a dunce who's locked into the persona he has created, utterly uncomprehending of its disastrous effects. Leading his colleagues down a road during a discussion, he ends up literally getting lost; watching Dreyfuss's baleful Cheney deliver a War Room soliloquy on exploiting 9/11 to drain the Middle East's "swamp," he's a confused spectator in his own show. Karl Rove (Toby Jones) likens himself to a magic fairy, "Rummy" stuffs his face with pie, and Newton turns Condoleezza's "Amen!" into a "quack!" -- these scenes come the closest to the outright comedy that the film threatens to become, though the snark is curdled by the disillusioned dignity of Wright's Powell, who ponders the impending catastrophe and adduces a note of Sixties regret ("We blew it"). Unfortunately, Stone's filmmaking fails to charge the narrative with the needed turmoil. The temporal crosscutting is perfunctory, the emotional collisions are neutered, the lighting is too controlled, too even; the picture cries for Angelina Jolie's Medusa eyes, and instead gets Elizabeth Banks's June Cleaverish Laura Bush. Maybe it really is too late for the project, or possibly too early. As it is, it's a too-polished mirror that nevertheless reflects eight years of history into the image of a baseball-playing leader who loses the ball, the crowds and the stadium without ever knowing why.
Like W., Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married deals with family. Unlike it, it pulsates with life. The setting is a multicultural, shambling wedding ceremony; Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is indeed getting married, although to her well-meaning father (the indispensable Bill Irwin) another big event arrives in the form of bruised prodigal daughter Kym (Anne Hathaway), just out of rehab and in need of "a lot of acknowledgement." As expected in the Pieces of April-The Family Stone-Margot at the Wedding pit of get-together dysfunction, familial laundry is brought out, washed, folded and ironed -- the dark secret in Kym's junkie past involves a dead little brother, and her self-centered outbursts stick in the craw of her sister and also her estranged mother (welcome back, Debra Winger). As scripted, this is Sundance fodder circa 1996; directed and acted, the film achieves startling present-tense emotion. Like Cassavetes and Altman before him and Renoir before them all, Demme understands and cherishes the largeness of human contradiction, the way people can hurt and still love each other; his close, handheld camera feeds off combustible feelings, his characters at times feel frighteningly intimate (the hushed way Rachel receives the broken Kym and washes her in her bathtub, to cite but one example, took my breath away). And as the razory, self-described "Shiva the Destroyer," Hathaway goes beyond the unwashed hair that glamorous actresses often mistake for "grit." The wedding celebration, with its uncommented-upon interracial union, jukebox of jazz, funk, samba, rock and reggae, and Robyn Hitchcock, Sister Carol East and Roger Corman mingling with the guests, is a virtuosic Demme bash. It is also a reminder that we sing to keep tragedy at bay, and that, as the euphoria gives way to the morning light, life and its complications await us. The elation and pain of being alive --Rachel Getting Married abounds in them.
The War on Terror is cinema's Instant-Importance trope of the moment: Just situate an action movie's explosions in Mesopotamia, and it becomes "relevant." So it goes with Body of Lies, Ridley Scott's glittering and superfluous tale of overlapping spy games in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, a conflict in which, according to Russell Crowe's patronizing CIA handler, "there ain't nobody innocent." His cynicism is contrasted with the earnestness of the agent (Leonardo DiCaprio in unsurprising ferret-with-a-conscience mode) on deadly ground in Baghdad, dodging bullets while Crowe demands results from his lawn chair. There's the beautiful local nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) whose love signals DiCaprio's redemption, the dapper Jordanian spook (Mark Strong) who matches and even outdoes U.S. trickery, and naturally the Bin Ladian guru (Alon Aboutboul) who gets called "motherfucker" by the hero. There's an adroit tracking shot that locates the corpse of a victim of military machinations in a dump, plus a nifty bit in which terrorists whip up an impromptu sandstorm to foil nosy overhead satellites, but mostly it's a movie about cool shades and speaker phones and computer screens, short on thrills and shorter on political insights. So Scott's devastating revelation is that the Middle East is a playpen of tangled, corrupt interests? Let Captain Renault in Casablanca have the last word: "I'm shocked, shocked!"
Reviewed October 24, 2008.