3 items from 1997
This is a tale about the tail that wags the dog, in this balmy case the tail being a White House media team that manipulates public opinion by misdirecting the media, i.e., the dog.
It's a deliriously funny and decidedly cynical sendup of hardball spin management, starring Robert De Niro as a White House media troubleshooter who is a hired gun for extreme and delicate situations and Dustin Hoffman as a vainglorious Hollywood producer secretly hired by the White House to "produce" a war.
Cerebral and silly all at once, this smart Barry Levinson satire will tickle the fancies of sophisticated viewers everywhere -- except perhaps those currently in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- and New Line should have a fine time wagging the political press with this daffy delirium.
At this point in time, as Congressional testifiers might declare, we have a president (dubbed by some as Slick Willy) who has been known to get in a sticky situation now and then and whose sexual history makes for great tabloid teases. Accordingly, "Wag the Dog"'s narrative springboard is that the president has had a quickie in the White House with a Fire-Fly Girl (think Girl Scout but purer) just before the election. Although he holds a strong lead in the polls, a sex scandal could turn the tide.
What to do?
Call in the firepower -- in the person of a master media manipulator Conrad Brean (De Niro), who is sort of a cross between Joseph Goebbels, James Carville and Dick Tuck. He's a sleight-of-hand artist who can get the media to look at the misdirection razzle-dazzle all the while he's safely pulling the rabbit out of his hat. Dirty tricks and misinformation are this guy's specialty, and not only does he put spin on his releases, they're filled with spit as well.
With a ticking clock -- eleven days to the election -- Brean goes into overdrive. A sex scandal with an underage teen is about the only thing that could keep this wishy-washy prez from being re-elected, and Brean realizes that although he can't keep the girl's story (she's going to file suit) from the press, he can at least downplay it and, perhaps, divert the press's attention.
But what -- short of a war -- would supersede a sex scandal involving the president? Bingo!
So, it's off to Hollywood to solicit a reclusive Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Hoffman), who has had experience, Motss reasons, that make him invaluable as a White House Fire-Fly Girl fighter -- he's produced the Oscars. If Brean can feed the mass media with enough misdirection, phony leaks, misinformation and then crank it to a hysterical pitch, perhaps the Fire-Fly Girl story will, well, drop to an inside page and be forgotten.
In the grand political tradition of bread and circuses while the city is burning, Brean and Motss create a "pageant," namely a war in Albania that monopolizes TV news time and ink-stained press coverage. With Motss orchestrating the "war" with victim symbolism that ranks right up there with Joseph Goebbels' "genius" in staging mass-march funerals for fallen Hitler youths, the deadline press is deluged with misguided images and red herrings, making them think they are actually uncovering "news."
The vanity of the press is perfectly captured in this droll mockery. Hilary Henkin's and David Mamet's script is a brainy and wicked satire of how easily the mass media can be manipulated, recalling Michael Ritchie's excellent political satire "The Candidate", starring Robert Redford as a vacuous John Tunney-type who seeks a Senate seat in California.
Levinson's satirical grip is just perfect -- light, somewhat distanced and understated. Such a deadpan take, letting the absurdities speak for themselves, also allows the acid to seep through without corroding the film's entertaining nature. Sure, one could nit-pick on certain implausibilities in the plotting, but anyone who has ever been near a newsroom or a Hollywood public relations firm could easily top every narrative extravagance here with a real-life, even goofier, story.
De Niro is marvelous as the cynical and unscrupulous pied piper of the press. His crisp performance and Machiavellian demeanor (the goatee, the dorky press hat) are smart accouterments for this breed of cat. Hoffman's full-blown performance as the megalomaniacal producer (reportedly based on Robert Evans) is wickedly droll. With his sky-tilted stare, fussy walk and scarfmanship, Hoffman is a romp as the self-absorbed nut case who has no connection to the real world. In short, he's truly Mr. Hollywood.
A well-chosen batch of supporting actors breathe further lunacy into this amusement. Willie Nelson, as a whacked-out songster (hired to compose the theme music for "The War"), and Woody Harrelson, as a medicated rapist, are particularly effective, while Anne Heche is downright credible as a straight-arrow White House press person who gets all stirred up by the bogus story they're creating.
The technical credits are powerful, chiefly because of their delicate execution. Under Levinson's well-played hand, Robert Richardson's dead-on framings are a droll hoot, while editor Stu Linder has stoked the satire with a salvo of low-key, incendiary cuts. Special praise to Mark Knopfler for the tangy music, including a wondrously wayward theme song and a daffy "We Are the World" -type schmaltz anthem.
WAG THE DOG
New Line Cinema
A Tribeca/Baltimore Pictures/Punch production
A Barry Levinson film
Producers: Jane Rosenthal, Robert DeNiro, Barry Levinson
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenwriters: Hilary Henkin and David Mamet
Based on the book "American Hero" by Larry Beinhart
Director of photography: Robert Richardson
Production designer: Wynn Thomas
Editor: Stu Linder
Costume designer: Rita Ryack
Casting: Ellen Chenoweth, Debra Zane
Music: Mark Knopfler
Stanley Motss: Dustin Hoffman
Conrad Brean: Robert De Niro
Winifred Ames: Anne Heche
Sgt. William Schumann: Woody Harrelson
Fad King: Denis Leary
Johnny Green: Willie Nelson
Liz Butsky: Andrea Martin
President: Michael Belson
Amy Cain: Suzanne Cryer
John Levy: John Michael Higgins
Grace: Suzie Plakson
Running time -- 105 minutes
MPAA rating: R
Since World War II, U.S. presidents who have had more than a wee bit of Irish in them -- Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton -- have won voters with their charm and affability.
All three made trips back to the "homeland" and invariably received boosts (both personal and political) from the experience. A cynical version of that phenomenon, "The Matchmaker" is a trying-to-be cute romantic comedy swaddled around one Boston campaign worker's trek to Ireland to seek out the ancestors of her boss, a lunkish pol who needs the Irish-American vote to return to the Senate in Massachusetts.
Starring Janeane Garofalo as the traveling aide, this romantic comedy is about as romantic as a belch, although not as comedically subtle. Billed as a romantic comedy for those who generally don't like standard romantic comedies, this film has the potential to greatly widen that demographic. Actually, it exudes the kind of romance for those type of folks who like to take world tours without ever leaving the tour bus.
With roughly following the same geographic road map and plot line as Bill Forsythe's charming 1983 film "Local Hero", with Peter Riegert as a callow yuppie who is assigned to travel to Scotland to negotiate a land purchase for his oil company and subsequently falls in love with the pristine setting and unspoiled people, "The Matchmaker" is formulaic fodder glazed in green and hardened with the broadest of comedic elements.
Garofalo stars as Marcy, an overworked and jaded political pro who toils day and night for the re-election of self-styled Kennedy-type Sen. John McGlory. The brawny senator often likens himself to JFK, although he's clearly more a Ted Kennedy type. Not since Dan Quayle compared himself with JFK in a vice presidential debate with Lloyd Bentsen has such nonsense been uttered.
So right off we're presented with an unappealing lout running for the Senate and his snippy aide who, against her will, is sent off to Ireland to find his ancestral home and dredge up some sort of photo op for the doltish demagogue.
With a slug's sense of adventure, an elitist's disdain for everyday folk and a pisser's disposition, Marcy arrives in the Irish seaside town of Ballinagra. Although the setting is so picturesque that you would expect to see it in National Geographic, mopey Marcy carries on like a spoiled blue blood.
She's further distressed that she arrived in the middle of the town's Matchmaking Festival and, despite her obviously single status, resents the fact that all the local folk want to set her up. Incredibly, all the area's single menfolk show up at a campaign stop in hopes of matching up with her. Such a scene leads one to believe there is a severe female famine in Ireland.
Still, the film is sagely peopled by some colorful Irish, which, admittedly, is a redundancy. Screenwriters Karen Janszen, Louis Nowra and Graham Linehan have crammed in an array of appealing oddball, supporting characters, but, alas, they're more comic caricatures that are ancestrally more related to previous movies than, one suspects, small-town Irish.
Athough patently unbelievable, the romantic portion of the scenario is also doggedly predictable as Marcy develops a hate-love relationship with a quirky local (David O'Hara).
In general, Mark Joffe's broad direction lacks the precision and touch necessary to blend farce with romance. Even in the broadest fish-out-of-water terms, "The Matchmaker" sinks. In like manner, the performances are often cartoonish and, in Garofalo's case, largely unappealing. Constant mugging characterizes her performance, which turns on a dime midway through when she transforms from churlish ugly American to a swoony, in-love girl. It's a character leap too great to fathom -- nowhere along the way has Garofalo layered it with any subtleties or hints that there is something other than a lout lurking behind her sullen smirk.
On the plus side, supporting characters are well cast. Denis Leary is aptly snide as the political campaign's treacherous media guru, while Jay O. Sanders is marvelously dopey as the self-serving senator. In a small role, Saffron Burrows stands out as an elegant Irish lass who is The Real Thing, Kennedy-wise and classwise.
Producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Luc Roeg
Director Mark Joffe
Based on a screenplay by Greg Dinner
Line producer Nicky Kentish Barnes
Executive producer Lyn Goleby
Director of photography Ellery Ryan
Editor Martin Smith
Production designer Mark Geraghty
Costume designer Howard Burden
Music John Altman
U.S. casting Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich
Sound recorder Brendan Deasy
Marcy Janeane Garofalo
Sean David O'Hara
Nick Denis Leary
Sen. John McGlory Jay O. Sanders
Declan Paul Hickey
Moira Saffron Burrows
Millie Rosaleen Linehan
Annie Olivia Caffrey
Michael Claude Clancy
Sgt. Riley James Ryland
Running time -- 96 minutes
MPAA rating: R
Fans of the recent, disastrous MGM release "Mad Dog Time" - and the half-dozen or so of them know who they are - are The Only Ones who should appreciate this effort written by Larry Bishop (Joey's son).
Bishop attracts top-notch talent to his projects, but after this one-two punch he's going to have to resuscitate the Rat Pack if he expects to stay in the business.
"Underworld" is a gangster tale told in the in-vogue Quentin Tarantino style, but with a surreal, hallucinatory tinge. The plot is fairly incomprehensible, but it has something to do with the efforts of ex-con Johnny Alt, a k a Johnny Crown (Denis Leary), to avenge the attempted murder of his father. Among his possible intended victims is his former best friend Frank (Joe Mantegna), the owner of the nightclub that gives the film its name. In his seven years in prison, Johnny has become a psychotherapist, and he proudly refers to himself as the only psychopathic psychotherapist in the business.
While busily gunning down various mobsters, Johnny takes the time to reunite Frank with both his ex-wife (Annabella Sciorra), also a shrink, and his estranged father (Abe Vigoda, no doubt nostalgic for his role in "The Godfather"). In the meantime, another hoodlum, Ned Lynch (played by Bishop himself, with the same lack of effectiveness he demonstrated in "Mad Dog Time"), is on the rampage, dispatching various victims with brutal efficiency, including a perfectly pleasant stripper played by Traci Lords.
Leary and Mantegna deliver their lines with their usual degree of intensity, but their embarrassment is palpable. Director Roger Christian, who won an Oscar for his set decoration on "Star Wars", has given the film an overly stylized visual design that only accentuates its pretensions.
Keystone Pictures in association
with Trimark Pictures
Director Roger Christian
Executive producers Mark Amin,
Michael Strange, Abra Edelman
Producers Robert Vince, William Vince
Writer Larry Bishop
Director of photography Steven Bernstein
Editor Robin Russell
Johnny Crown/Johnny Alt Denis Leary
Frank Gavilan/Richard Essex Joe Mantegna
Dr. Leah Annabella Sciorra
Ned Lynch Larry Bishop
Will Cassady Abe Vigoda
Stan Robert Costanzo
Anna Traci Lords
Running time -- 95 minutes
MPAA rating: R
3 items from 1997
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