Political films are a tough sell in this day and age. Whether it’s the overwhelming disappointment in the past eight years of the Bush administration, or the state of the economy, Democrats and Republicans would much rather see Batman or Indiana Jones than politics on the big screen.
Two films released in 2008 attempted to utilize politics as a means to their end. Sadly, both of their ends were tragic, as were their overall usefulness in the dialogue of American political cinema.
First, and by far one of the worst of 2008 was An American Carol. Directed and co-written by one of my favorite filmmakers, David Zucker (Airplane!, The Naked Gun trilogy, Scary Movies 3 & 4), I was excited to see his latest work. I was thoroughly disappointed.
Not only was the film not funny, it was a waste of time for the audience. Now, it does pain me to say this. I met the man, like the man, and think that his past films are great. But what those films contain that this one doesn’t is a sense of fun and whimsy. It’s hard to get that sense when in the middle of all the seemingly wacky chaos a serious note about September 11, 2001 is thrust onto the screen. Doesn’t make for much comedy, in my opinion.
An American Carol lacked a sense of purpose and a sense of fun. It was trying too hard to be a message movie: Liberals are BAD; Conservatives are GOOD. But what results is more of an anti-American feel to the film than anything else. The film was promoted by radio show pundits like Sean Hannity as being a feel-good film about America. I never got that feeling. I got the opposite.
With so many talented people in the cast, one would think that a decent film would result. At least, that’s what I thought. Until I started to think about other films that were crappy that had great casts:
Wild Wild West (1999) – Will Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kenneth Branagh could save this disaster despite their long list of blockbuster and well-crafted films.
Batman & Robin (1997) – George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger left the Batman franchise in the crapper. It took eight years to fix.
Catwoman (2004) – Halle Berry and Sharon Stone starred in this mess that earned a Razzie Award that was accepted in person by Berry.
An American Carol stars Kelsey Grammer (Cheers, Frasier), Dennis Hopper (Speed, Easy Rider, those retirement commercial), Jon Voight (National Treasure movies, Transformers), James Woods (Shark, Ghosts of Mississippi), and Leslie Nielsen (Naked Gun trilogy, Wrongfully Accused, Scary Movie 3 & 4). Talented actors every one. But an awful movie nevertheless.
Maybe it was Kevin Farley, Chris Farley’s brother, who through the movie off its track. He plays Michael Murphy, a spoof of Michael Moore, a man determined to abolish the Fourth of July. But his acting seems forced and falls flat on too many occasions. He’s not as talented as his brother was (or would have been). Murphy is visited by three spirits that show him the errors of his liberal ways (a la A Christmas Carol), and in the end he changes to the “right” side (ha ha).
As I watched the film I felt sorry for David Zucker. He’s made such good and hilarious movies in the past, why would he make something so awful? It was even worse than Top Secret! and that was pretty bad. I also felt sorry for the actors who must have known that this was not a resume-building film. Granted, most of the cast are Conservatives (not Leslie Nielsen, he hates Bush!), but maybe they all needed a paycheck.
Oliver Stone’s W. had promise. Questions kept rising: what would be Stone’s take on the Bush presidency? How would he deal with aspects of Bush’s life? Would there be any conspiracy theories about 9/11 thrown into the mix?
The result was a boring paint-by-numbers film that failed to illicit any response from audiences (it grossed $29 million during its short seven week run). So, what happened? I think people are tired of President Bush and didn’t want to pay money to see him or his likeness on a huge screen. Or maybe people weren’t sure if it was a comedy, a drama, or a dramedy. Either way, it didn’t work.
Don’t get me wrong. Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men, Milk) and Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Mr. Holland’s Opus) are spot-on in their impersonations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. They were excellent and entertaining. Even James Cromwell (Babe, The General’s Daughter) was a joy to watch as Bush Sr. (the scene where he loses the re-election to Clinton was well-acted). The worst performance award goes to Thandie Newton (Crash) as Condi Rice, whose voice sounds like a mix between a Saturday Night Live impersonation and Edward G. Robinson from a 50s gangster movie. It was very distracting and annoying to listen to. But despite these performances (good or bad), they fail to overcome a weak and plodding storyline that misses opportunities left and right.
I was hoping to see more about the 2000 Election controversy. What did Bush think about the goings-on? September 11, 2001; where’s the scene with Bush in the classroom? Why don’t we get a sense of his thought process? There are so many questions that pop up, it made me wonder in W.-2 was being planned.
The film cuts off before we even invade Iraq in 2003, so the 2004 election is dismissed, as are other prominent events from the Bush administration. The Patriot Act. Torture. Fallujah. Approval ratings. All ripe for the picking and yet left out of the film. I was disappointed. I wanted more substance. Instead it’s mostly filler and fluff.
I expect more from Oliver Stone. He’s given us some of the most controversial films of our time: Natural Born Killers and JFK to name just two. He even directed World Trade Center, so he had insight into the events of that day, it could have been a much more prominent factor in W. It’s almost as if Stone was afraid to go for the jugular. Afraid of being audited, or having Secret Service on his tail every time he left his home. This was his chance, his opportunity to deliver a hard-hitting account of the defunct Bush administration and instead he went the biopic route. What a shame.
So, are fictionalized political films dead? Is Michael Moore the only one capable of making political films that people want to see? Fahrenheit 911 made a whopping $119 million domestically, the most ever for a documentary.
Is political satire best left to The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Saturday Night Live? Judging from the two films mentioned above, I must say yes.
An American Carol and W. receive my designation as the Worst Films of 2008.
Disagree? Bring it on!
An American Carol trailer: