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.”
All such attempts at unveiling an alternative history of the last eight years, though, are undercut by the film’s reliance on cheap gags and forced goofiness; seconds after Dreyfuss’ Satanic moment, the president sounds like Henry Blake on M*A*S*H, saying, “We’re not sure who they are, but they’re there.” Gear changes clang like this throughout; Stone wants to be thought of as both commentator and a comic, but he isn’t Stanley Kubrick and his many ironic uses of campy songs à la Strangelove are trite, repetitive and obvious.
Stone and his cast plainly don’t understand George W. Bush so they (again — I except Banks, who seems to be in a completely different and better movie — settle for a two-hour Saturday Night Live sketch that skims every surface.
Stone still cannot fathom how Bush won four huge elections, thrice bested the man universally acknowledged to be the country’s best debater in 2000 and inspired millions in (to cite a few examples) his speech atop the rubble at the World Trade Center, his Convention address in 2004 and in his second inaugural in 2005. Astonishing but true: Stone simply skips over all of these signature moments because they don’t fit Stone’s one joke about a bumbler who drifted to the top and destroyed the world.
To put it another way: the film does not show the courageous choice to launch the Surge and the way it succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, but does show the pretzel-choking incident, during which the president is shown wearing a novelty T-shirt with a dog on it.
Except for (perhaps) a scene in which Bush is shown breaking down and praying for salvation, there is not a single moment that shows any reason why anyone would support such an imbecile; in its determined omissions, it’s a bigger insult to the 62 million who voted for Bush than to the man himself.
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring: Josh Brolin, Jeffrey Wright, Scott Glenn, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton
O.5 stars/ 4
131 minutes/Rated PG-13