The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Oliver Stone and David Zucker get the critical ax

October 22, 2008 |  5:19 pm

W_2I'm not exactly singing "Kumbaya" yet, but as we move toward the final week of the presidential campaign, it seems as if those of us on the left and the right are slowly beginning to see the world in a similar light. First I found myself agreeing with a host of conservatives--notably David Brooks, Christopher Buckley and George Will, not to mention Gen. Colin Powell--who view Gov. Sarah Palin as a bantamweight politico, unworthy of being a heartbeat away from the presidency.

And now I find myself agreeing with conservative novelist/screenwriter/blogger Roger L. Simon, who just posted a dual review of Oliver Stone's "W." and David Zucker's "An American Carol," saying in his usual briskly authoritative manner that "they are both abysmal movies in almost every way." I guess we're discussing criticism a lot on the blog today, but I have to admit that Simon has a more intriguing take on both films than most of the print professionals who've weighed in the past few weeks. For starters, Simon admits his bias--he's a conservative who had hoped Zucker's movie would succeed. In fact, he held off writing about the film until it "mercifully disappeared from the marketplace," as he puts it, to avoid harming its chances in any way.

But he is now painfully honest about its drawbacks, saying that it is important for conservatives to avoid pulling punches for the rare conservative film that surfaces. "If there is one thing that is bad for conservative filmmaking in general," he writes, "it is to make bad films.... Furthermore, dwelling on being 'victims' of Hollywood by conservative filmmakers is a surefire prescription for continued failure, just as it is for other minority groups. To applaud this kind of [bad] filmmaking is to applaud affirmative action for conservatives."

Simon also zeros in on "American Carol's" key flaw. Like "W.," it underestimates its protagonist, in this case portraying its lead character--a Michael Moore-style documentary filmmaker--as "a self-centered dolt who overeats." As Simon points out, portraying the cagey, slick Moore as a dolt leaves the film bereft of any comic friction: "Since there is no serious adversary, there is no real plot tension. The audience is left waiting for the obviously imbecilic Moore finally to see the light, making for a totally predictable experience."

He is just as hard on "W.," which he zings for wallowing in an equally predictable dime-store psychological portrait of a bad-boy son desiring the approval of his powerful father.  "This plays like a film made by a director who has never experienced real family life over time. [Stone] doesn't seem to realize how family members interact with each other. He has them all making speeches to each other instead of behaving, well, like people who have lived together for decades." Simon concludes: "It's not the politics, liberal or otherwise. It's the bad dramaturgy that dooms this movie in which nothing is subtext and everything is text. The audience is treated like idiots, never allowed to figure out anything for themselves."

I'd go even farther. "W.'s" biggest problem is that it aspires to be a serious drama, but its timing is off. Stone clearly sees the Bush family as Eugene O'Neill territory, but his film arrives in the twilight of a failed presidency, when moviegoers were hoping to see a caustic satire (closer to what Stone did marvelously in "Natural Born Killers"), not an earnest, not especially original portrayal of how the Bush presidency went awry.

Bad times are good times for satirists, which is why no comic in America--however liberal they may be--has any professional rooting interest in an Obama presidency. He's too thoughtful and sober-minded to have much fun with. The comics are all rooting for McCain and Palin. She's already proved her value to "SNL," while McCain has the kind of raw emotional edges and awkward mannerisms that keep comedy writers working overtime. However you look at it, the great satirists rise above personal politics and find a deeper well of comic material to draw from. As Simon said so well in his review, preaching to the choir is not enough.

Photo of Josh Brolin in "W." from Lions Gate Entertainment