Wag The Dog

on December 25, 1997 by Ray Greene
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   It's official. Director Barry Levinson can now lay claim to being the very last person in America who still hasn't gotten over the Persian Gulf War. He's mad. Oh boy is he mad. And he's going to tell us all about it, in yet another zany political satire that plows the same ground as the justly maligned "Toys" somewhat more effectively, but ultimately ends up as one of this underrated director's more minor works.
   It's hard at first to lay a finger on just what went wrong with "Wag the Dog." It's visually sumptuous, thanks to director of photography Robert Richardson's clean, bright camera work. There are two fine comedic performances at or near its core (from Dustin Hoffman and Anne Heche, respectively). The film even boasts a fair amount of political insight, albeit insight that's delivered fitfully between "fish in a barrel" variety satire designed to educate the audience about how--gasp!--contemporary politicians use Hollywood-style imagery to manipulate public sentiment.
   The set up is promising: A Clintonesque president is accused of sexual misconduct with an underaged Campfire Girl. It's the eve of an election he'll win if the news doesn't get out, so who you gonna call? Robert De Niro, as it turns out, as a scalawag political operator expert in diverting the public's attention with fabricated crises of one sort or another. The looming scandal is a big one--so big De Niro needs outside help from an eccentric but gifted Hollywood producer (Hoffman) and a presidential aide (Heche) whose ethics are as situational as his own. Their conclusion: time to manufacture a U.S. war in the Balkans, using state-of-the-art computer imaging to sway public opinion. What are meant to be hilarious complications ensue.
   Only they aren't hilarious enough, and De Niro's shaggy, genteel and naturalistic performance is a big clue as to the reason why. In this inversion of Jack Arnold's Cold War classic "The Mouse That Roared" (in which the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick declared war on the U.S. as a ruse to get American aid money), Levinson and De Niro's talents for believability are at odds with the inherent absurdism of the premise. Both tonally and at the level of performance, "Wag the Dog" is a farce that is determinedly unwilling to be farcical; only Hoffman has the smarts and/or chutzpah to torque up his performance to a level of giddy burlesque suitable to what should have been his surroundings.
   It doesn't help matters that Levinson's main point is an obvious one to anyone with access to a television, or that it is made and remade in virtually every scene. Given the dearth of political humor in American movies lately, it would have been nice to report that Levinson and his all-star cast had made a "Dr. Strangelove" for the '90s, but unfortunately, this "Dog" is almost all bark and almost no bite.    Starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche and Denis Leary. Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet. Produced by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Barry Levinson. A New Line release. Satire. Rated R for language. Running time: 100 min.
Tags: Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Barry Levinson. Written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet. Produced by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Barry Levinson. A New Line release. Satire
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