Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Day 27: Wag the Dog
"The war's not over."
"Yes it is, I just saw it on the television."
1997 was the last time we saw Robert DeNiro in a film, he actually did two that year, Jackie Brown and Wag the Dog (Copland don't count folks). Sure, he's done a lot of movies since then, but has anyone taken the guy seriously in the last 15 years? I liked Analyze This and Meet the Parents and The Score, but DeNiro the actor... DeNiro the respected statesman of American cinema... that guy left us in 1997. He's still the standard bearer for crazy method acting; Whenever an actor loses or gains a ton of weight for a role, he's immediately compared to DeNiro. I've been lulled into a false sense of security by his presence in a trailer too many times in the last decade but the guy hasn't made a good movie in so long, I'm not surprised when he turns up in dreck like New Year's Eve and Machete.
In Wag the Dog he plays Conrad Brean, a political fixer called in by the current President's administration to help them fix a pretty big problem 11 days before the election. Apparently the sitting President is being accused by a teenager of sexual misconduct and his people need Conrad's help in sweeping this thing under the rug. He decides to fly to Hollywood to meet up with a big time producer named Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman very clearly paying homage to his good friend Robert Evans), to enlist his help in manufacturing a war.
Stanley brings in his friends songwriter Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson), Liz Butsky (Andrea Martin) and The Fad King (Denis Leary) to help in coming up with all of the various elements that accompany a war and how to help sell it to the American people. When the CIA eventually exposes that there is no war, Stanley and his team turn the tables and change the focus of the story to a soldier left behind enemy lines named Willie Schumann (Woody Harrleson, brilliant beyond words) and hope to deliver him safely home the day before the election.
The film skewers so many targets with marksman-like precision; It's a satire of Hollywood, Washington D.C., the American public at large, and the media. The fact that the film was released jut months before the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal shows just how prescient the film was at the time of its release, let alone how well it holds up some 15 years later. I do wonder how the events would play out in the age of the internet, 24-hour news and social networking.
It might almost make a remake or revisiting worthwhile, which is something I never say, but you just know that, for example, the young actress played by Kirsten Dunst would be live-tweeting from the set of the secret news footage shoot before anyone could get her to sign any sort of non-disclosure agreement. It would add an interesting set of elements to the story, and with all the other shit getting remade these days (Footloose? Seriously?) at least this would be worth exploring.
Dustin Hoffman is fantastic, as always, and is one of the only living actors that can work effortlessly in both comedy and drama. You never see him working, it all just happens, and his performance here is sublime (all the more so if you've seen The Kid Stays in the Picture). DeNiro is great too, as he always used to be, and is far more effective as a comedic actor when he's doing less. All the mugging he's doing in the comedies he's made since Meet the Parents undermines any of the subtlety he brought to roles like this one. His scene in the bar with William H. Macy and Anne Heche is great and he shows how good he can be when given good material. Speaking of Anne Heche, she's equally good and has no small task ahead of her, playing all of her scenes with two screen legends, but she holds her own and manages to garner laughs and prove she's worthy of the role.
Barry Levinson has always been a very good director for writers and actors, as he never does anything flashy or upstaging as a director. He trusts his actors enough to just get out of their way and let them do their thing, and it almost always works. In his best films like Diner and Rain Man this has served him well. Whenever he's tried to do too much visually, his lack of skill as a director betrays him, like in Toys, Sleepers, Young Sherlock Holmes, the list goes on.
In fact two years ago, he reunited with DeNiro for the insider comedy What Just Happened? that I had hoped against hope would be a return to form for both and be a worthy successor to Wag the Dog. Instead it fell woefully short of the sum of its parts, and was borderline unwatchable. Thankfully Levinson's most recent film redeemed both him and one of DeNiro's contemporaries who also had seemed beyond redemption, when he did You Don't Know Jack with Al Pacino. With the right script, maybe Levinson's the guy to give DeNiro another shot at redemption, but I don't know how fleeting it will be. Any lover of cinema has got to be optimistic though that it will pay off great dividends.
Tomorrow's film will be Disney's 2011 hand-drawn animated Winnie the Pooh.