Half Hee-Haw and half Dr. Strangelove, Oliver Stone’s would-be comedy W., opening tomorrow, is not quite what I expected. It’s worse.
Stone, who has been wearing out his vocal cords informing interviewers of his vast empathy for his onetime Yale classmate (the two never met on campus), plays the invasion of Iraq against “Yellow Rose of Texas,” devotes nearly half the movie to scene after scene showing Bush stumbling around with a beer bottle or a tumbler of Jack Daniels, and imagines that, behind the scenes, the tightly controlled Yankee-hardened Bush clan of stoics carries on like a bunch of overwrought Project Runway contestants.
Among the film’s most literally incredible moments are those that show President George H.W. Bush (Bush 41), played by James Cromwell without the slightest effort to resemble the man, being decisive, authoritative, forceful, and even manly, qualities he managed to keep under wraps during three decades in the public eye. Playing the title role, Josh Brolin misreads the president’s stiff, just got-off-a-horse body language as a reason to stay in motion at all times, notably during his initial encounter with Laura (Elizabeth Banks, who gives the only restrained performance) at a barbecue. Here and elsewhere W.’s body flits around as if he’s undergoing shock therapy; here and elsewhere, W. speaks, disgustingly, with his mouth open as if he just blew in from the trailer park instead of Skull and Bones.
One speech Bush delivers while seated on the toilet (where, at a mention of the presidency of another filial success, John Quincy Adams, he says, “That was, like, 300 years ago, wuddn’t it?”). On his inauguration day, he stumbles to greet his father with his pants around his ankles. This isn’t cutting-edge political satire or even wounding invective; it’s just vaudeville.
Stone jumps around in time, combining remarks made years apart for alleged comic effect (during a campaign for governor of Texas, many famous malapropisms come out, but consecutively, as though nothing Bush says ever makes sense) as Bush evolves from frat-boy to frat-boy businessman to frat-boy governor to frat-boy president. The president’s arms fly up as though signaling a field goal during the centerpiece moment, in which the president and his cabinet discuss the Iraq invasion. (Jeffrey Wright, speaking in some sort of Redd Foxx rumble, is Colin Powell; a twittering Thandie Newton is Condi Rice; Scott Glenn is Rumsfeld and a well-made-up Richard Dreyfuss, hunched over as though tying his shoelaces, is Cheney, though Dreyfuss’ high-pitched nasal whine is more or less the opposite of Cheney’s low rasp.) That scene, featuring unlikely moments of sorority-girl sarcasm such as Colin Powell telling Cheney, “Don’t patronize me, Mr. Five Deferments,” is pitched at a JFK level of paranoia, with Cheney insisting that the U.S. must control the entire Middle East, forever. While standing literally in the shadows he barks, “Control Iran, control Eurasia, control the world. Empire. Real empire. No one will f — k with us again.”